STEP Barbados members join fight for the right to vote for commonwealth citizens

Friday, 25 May 2018

What started off as a simple conversation between, the current Chairperson of the STEP Barbados Branch, Tara Frater and former Chairperson Keisha N. Hyde Porchetta on the last day of the 2018 STEP Caribbean Conference, held in Barbados from 7-9 May 2018, as to whether either of them had been registered on the Barbados register of voters blossomed into a battle for the right to vote and the ultimate victory for over 200 Commonwealth Citizens residing and working in Barbados - who were ultimately registered to vote in the May 24, 2018 general elections held in Barbados.

The Representation of the People Act Chapter 12 of the Laws of Barbados (the “Act”) provides at section 7 that Commonwealth citizens, who have resided in Barbados for at least 3 years prior to the qualifying date (defined in the Act as the date of registration or in an election year the date prescribed by the EBC (defined below)) for registration as an elector, who are of sound mind, are 18 years old or older and who have ordinarily resided within their constituency for at least 3 months prior to the qualifying date, are entitled to be registered as electors. Notwithstanding this provision, for many years the Electoral and Boundaries Commission of Barbados (the “EBC”) had adopted a policy that Commonwealth citizens were not entitled to be registered as electors and therefore not eligible to vote.

Several Commonwealth citizens challenged this policy earlier this year, with Professor Eddy Ventose, of the Law Faculty of the University of the West Indies insisting that he be allowed to make an application to be registered on the register of voters. On failing to receive a response on his application, he initiated an action in which he was represented by leading Queens Counsel in Barbados and Faye Finnistere, a member of STEP Barbados and attorney-at-law. Separate but related actions were initiated by Michelle Russell and Sharon Edgecombe-Miller, both attorneys-at-law and others who decided to take the matter to court. On February 26, 2018, the Chief Justice of Barbados Sir Marston Gibson, in the Supreme Court, determined that the EBC’s policy was ultra vires and therefore unlawful and that Commonwealth citizens, who had fulfilled the requirements under the Act, were entitled to be registered as electors. The EBC, not being satisfied with the outcome of this decision appealed the decision and the Court of Appeal of Barbados upheld the Chief Justice’s decision.

In the interim, while these court hearings were ongoing, the former Prime Minister declared that elections were to be held on May 24th which meant that time became of the essence. Many Commonwealth citizens had attempted to apply to be registered to vote since the first ruling outlawing the EBC’s policy. However, as of May, many were still following up on their applications seeking to elicit some form of response from the EBC but none was forthcoming. These events precipitated the conversation between STEP Barbados members, Hyde-Porchetta and Frater, both of whom are Jamaican nationals, and therefore Commonwealth citizens, who had been residing in Barbados for well over the relevant qualifying period and both of whom had applied to be registered.

They appreciated that the clock was clicking and something needed to be done. The call to act was evident and Frater and Hyde-Porchetta on Saturday, May 12th created a WhatsApp group for affected Commonwealth citizens and added as many persons as they knew who were affected and collaborated with others to identify as many affected persons as possible.. The following day was a landmark day as Professor Ventose secured an emergency hearing before the Caribbean Court of Justice (the “CCJ”), the final appellate Court of Barbados, to move that Court to declare that he was entitled to be registered as an elector and to be so registered. The CCJ upheld the lower courts’ decisions that the EBC’s policy was ultra vires and unlawful and declared that Professor Ventose was to be added to the Register of Electors by noon on Monday, May 14th. This victory gave all affected hope. However, it was clear that the final list of electors who would be able to vote in the election would be published on Friday, May 18th and, as at the end on the day on May 14th only Professor Ventose and the other early litigants were added to the list.

Hyde-Porchetta contacted the media on Saturday, May 12th as it was evident that the public needed to be alerted of the Commonwealth citizens’ plight and to understand the situation from their perspective. On Monday, May 14, Frater issued a call to action to STEP Barbados members, who were Commonwealth citizens or who were aware of Commonwealth citizens to contact her, Hyde-Porchetta and Michelle Russellprovided assistance to such persons by giving them a form letter to send to the Chief of the EBC and providing them with information regarding the process to check if they were registered.

Hyde-Porchetta and Frater provided an interview to the Caribbean Media Corporation, which was broadcasted across the Caribbean region, outlining the plight of the Commonwealth citizens. They then worked with attorneys Michelle Russell, Sharon Edgecombe-Miller and Bryan Weekes and were able to file an urgent court application, along with 12 other litigants on behalf of the Commonwealth citizens, seeking to be registered. The hearing was held on Friday, May 18th the day that the final list of electors was to be published and after 8 hours in Supreme Court, the Chief Justice, having verified with the Immigration Department that the litigants complied with the Act, added 13 of the 14 litigants to the list of electors and the EBC committed to adding over 120 other persons who had been confirmed by the Immigration Department as having met the residency requirement.

On Monday, May 21st the team was advised that over 200 Commonwealth citizens were added to the list and persons who had contacted the ladies started confirming that they too were registered. However, by the end of the day it was evident that there were still persons who were not registered. By this time Faye Finisterre, who was involved in the CCJ case, initiated further steps to ensure that others were added to the list of electors and filed an urgent court application which was heard on the morning of the general election. As a result, many more Commonwealth citizens were added to the list. The STEP Barbados Branch provided a platform to help STEP Barbados Members and affected members of the Barbados public to fight for a fundamental right, the right to vote in the 21st century, thereby helping to uphold the rule of law and the democratic process of Barbados.

In the words of the late great Martin Luther King Jr. “there comes a time when silence is betrayal. Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter. In the end, we will be remembered not for the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

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By Keisha Hyde-Porchetta, former STEP Barbados Chairperson and member of the STEP Barbados Editorial Committee