Back in 2012, the then opposition People’s Action Movement (PAM) in St Kitts – now part of the Unity government of Dr Timothy Harris – decided to challenge the rights of Commonwealth nationals who are students at universities on the twin island federation to register to vote.
The party’s deputy chairman Jonel Powell said PAM had objected to approximately 160 such people, most of whom were Nigerians.
However, the managers of the country’s electoral system dismissed the objections based on the fact that the students had the constitutional and legal right to register to vote in the federation as long as they were resident there for 12 continuous months and had reached the age of 18. It did not matter that they were there as students.
Unhappy with the decision against it, PAM took the matter to court in 2014, as it sought to have the names of the Nigerian students struck off the voters’ list ahead of the 2015 general election.
However, the court threw out the case in 2015, stating that “Commonwealth citizens and Commonwealth students who are in St Kitts are entitled to be registered and to vote . . . once they have met the residence and domicile requirements provided for in the elections legislation”.
The matter never made it to the courts in St Vincent and the Grenadines, but when that country’s opposition leader, Arnhim Eustace publicly raised questions about the eligibility of Nigerian students there to vote, the supervisor of elections Sylvia Findlay was emphatic in her response: “The law is very clear on the fact that a Commonwealth citizen who is residing in the country for a period of one year can be registered as a voter. So, for our purposes, we will not discriminate against somebody because the person is a student. But as along as the person has been living here legally for one year [the person is eligible to register to vote].”
The right to vote is one given to Commonwealth citizens by many a country of the grouping, on condition that they are 18 years old and are resident for varying periods based on the country.
The United Kingdom is quite liberal, allowing Commonwealth citizens, including Barbadians, who are resident and either have leave to remain in the UK or not require such leave, to vote.
In Commonwealth Caribbean countries such as Dominica, Jamaica and St Vincent and the Grenadines, the residency requirement is a 12-month period. In Antigua and Barbuda, up until 2001 it was three years for Commonwealth nationals and seven years for citizens of other countries. It is now seven years for everyone.
In fact, according to political scientist Peter Wickham, in some countries it’s as little a six months. This means any Barbadian, student or otherwise, can vote in many a Commonwealth country as long as he or she meets the residency and age requirements.
In Barbados, Commonwealth citizens have similar rights, with the residency period being three years. Therefore, it is perplexing that the Electoral and Boundaries Commission (EBC) will continue to pursue a legal battle against Commonwealth Caribbean citizens, because it is hell-bent on preventing them from being involved in the electoral process.
The EBC has outlined its policy, insisting that only those who are permanent residents or citizens are eligible. This policy, therefore, excludes the many Commonwealth citizens who are here on work permits, for example.
Chief Justice Sir Marston Gibson has ruled that the EBC is wrong, so has the Court of Appeal. Yet it persists. What then, does the EBC know that Sir Marston doesn’t? What does it know that three Supreme Court judges don’t? Is it prepared to allow the matter to get to the Caribbean Court of Justice so our country can once again be embarrassed by the regional court?
Attorney-at-law Gregory Nicholls, who is one of the lawyers representing four Commonwealth Caribbean nationals who sued the EBC, has already said the local electoral management body will have hell to pay if it persists in “blatantly ignoring” the Court of Appeal ruling on the eligibility of qualified Commonwealth citizens to vote in the May 24 general election. This means a lawsuit seeking damages. Did we not learn anything from the Shanique Myrie case?
While the EBC continues to hold firmly to its position that only permanent residents or citizens can vote, the question we have is: Does the law prescribe how they must arrive here to take up residency?
We assign no motives to the electoral management body, and we believe everyone there is sincere, fair and have good intentions. But even good interntions can sometimes take us in the wrong direction
When PAM first announced it would attempt to prevent the Nigerian students from voting, its leader at the time, Lindsay Grant – now the minister of tourism – said there were “ever growing offshore university institutions and we have several hundred Commonwealth citizens in St Kitts and Nevis and if you have several hundred voters, new voters coming into your system with such small marginal numbers in our constituencies they can dramatically affect any election”.
Therein lies the issue! According to Mr Wickham, the number of Commonwealth citizens who are eligible to register here is quite small.
However, he said there are concerns by the political class that even a trickle could make a difference in some marginal seats. If such is the case, our political leaders have a duty to go to Parliament and remove the constitutional and legal rights that these nationals are afforded. Until then, the EBC should do the right thing.