OPINION: No To Secret Ballots
The slogan of The Washington Post is “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
But Jamaica’s newspaper of record seems intent on killing it.
A Gleaner editorial recently supported the view put forward by research organization Caribbean Policy Research Institute (CAPRI) that the parliament should be allowed to vote on the legalization of abortion using secret ballots, calling it “eminently sensible.”
The aim of CAPRI’s suggestion is to repeal two sections of The Offences Against The Person Act that criminalize abortion. A woman found guilty of the offence could be jailed for life at hard labor. Anyone who assists could be imprisoned for three years.
CAPRI says secret votes are necessary to protect parliamentarians from retribution by religious groups, some of whom have expressly stated their intention to “mobilize against any elected official who votes to legalize abortion.” CAPRI told me that mobilize in this context means organizing to vote out a parliamentarian, and that so far, there has been no threat of violence.
In response, I say this suggestion put forward by CAPRI and sanctioned by The Gleaner is dangerous because of the precedent it sets. Within days of its first editorial, the paper upped the ante from abortion and released a second opinion piece, recommending the use of secret ballots, more broadly, on “matters of conscience”.
Regardless of what would be included under this banner, this suggestion doesn’t serve us as a nation.
Allowing secret ballots on issues erodes our democracy, produces an unclear mandate, and promotes cowardice among our leaders.
Why all Jamaicans should be bothered by the mere suggestion…
Both sides of the abortion debate should be concerned should this concept of secret balloting go through.
“When you have secret ballots, how do I, as a constituent, know how my MP has voted on this issue?” questioned Matondo Mukulu, Jamaica’s former Acting Public Defender, an office that promotes and protects the rights of citizens.
Now based in the U.K., Mr. Mukulu reasoned, “Nobody has told me how it is that the member of parliament will be held accountable,” for those opposed to abortion.
For those in favor, he argues, “What about the ladies who want that kind of public support from the member of parliament? When the MP votes to repeal, you’re really strengthening and giving females that type of support from a critical institution, the parliament, and that’s important.”
Two different national polls from 2019 and 2020 showed that more than half of respondents want the ban on abortion to remain in place. One women’s-rights advocate Nadeen Spence told The Gleaner in 2019 that the findings indicate that Jamaicans still don’t understand what she calls the true argument of the abortion debate and are just going along with the church. She told me this past week she still feels that way.
While in opposition, Prime Minister Andrew Holness had proposed to include abortion in a grand referendum on several matters, but that’s not a position that CAPRI supports.
CAPRI states that the rights of minorities (poor women and girls) are considered inappropriate to be put to a popular vote, and since most Jamaicans do not support the legalization of abortion, it believes that a referendum would merely remove the issue from the political agenda, while keeping the law intact.
The organization adds that, in many cases, referenda are promoted “so that the party in government can avoid taking responsibility for the decision, especially if the issue could have a damaging effect on their electoral success.”
The problem here is that CAPRI’s advocacy for secret ballots in a conscience vote also ensures that those elected officials who take a position avoid responsibility, and I cannot go along with that.
Regardless of how hot-button an issue is, I want a leader who is willing to take a position and articulate it openly and, if necessary, be willing to pay the political price for standing in that position.
The parliamentarian from West Rural St. Andrew who put forward the motion to legalize abortion, Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn, told me, “I’m not going to be scared or threatened with groups rallying to vote against me.”
After introducing the motion in 2018, and serving on a House committee that then discussed and tabled a report in March 2020, Mrs. Cuthbert-Flynn won re-election with 60% of the vote in September. She has since been appointed Minister of State in the Ministry of Health & Wellness.
“The majority of my constituents did not vote based on abortion. It’s all about the work that I do,” she said.
Currently, there is a record number of women in the House and in the Senate, although men still represent more than 60% of both chambers. Now more than ever, women’s advocates should theoretically have more support to be able to articulate the “true argument” of the debate and should take responsibility if they fail to communicate that position.
At least ten lawmakers, both male and female, have already signaled that they are in favor of changing the law to legalize abortion. We have not seen represented in the local media recently those who are against, if any?
Those opposed may have religious views, and our democracy allows for that. As Mr. Mukulu points out, it’s in tolerating different viewpoints that the society matures.
Speaking at the start of National Journalism Week in January, one of Jamaica’s most prominent church leaders Rev. Dr. Peter Garth said that while he is against the legalization of abortion and believes the issue should be decided by a referendum, he also understands there are those who disagree with him, and their viewpoints should be heard.
“We must wrestle with those who have different views, not shut them up. Don't tell them that they cannot speak,” he said. “They must also be allowed to speak just as how the Church must be allowed to speak.”
The traditional church will always have its position and should be able to articulate that position to its congregants, to the public and even to lawmakers if it wants. But it doesn’t mean that it should drown out the voices and concerns of pro-choice advocates. In fact, in a handful of cases there may be overlap. The parliamentary committee that most recently took up the issue of abortion and recommended the conscience vote (though not in secret), received a submission from a local faction called Group of Committed Christians In Support of Abortion up to 12 Weeks.
Jamaica is not a theocracy led by priests, but a democracy, where leaders are elected to represent the entire population regardless of whether members of the society are religious or not.
After speaking with CAPRI's Director of Research Diana Thorburn, she indicated to me that there could be some bending in her organization’s position “if the prime minister were to clearly indicate to his members that the party is not taking a position, that members can truly vote their conscience, that the vote is non-partisan, and that he is not going to attempt to impose his views on anyone else.”
But, regardless of whether the prime minister makes this indication or not, I believe that if those running for office can solicit our support during election time, we also in turn have a right to know how they vote.
As members of the press, our job is to safeguard democracy and to promote it by keeping the citizenry in the know. We should not take positions, however convenient, that threaten to undermine democracy or, worse, kill it.
Editor’s Note: The Gleaner editorial also recommended that the parliamentary rules be amended to allow for secret ballots among parliamentarians for no-confidence motions against the Prime Minister and ministers of government. Several jurisdictions around the world allow for this along with secret votes on internal matters like the election of the Speaker and committee chairs. However, voting by secret ballot on issues appears less common.
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