Franchise Reform in the 20th-Century Bahamas: Towards a Democratic Suffrage

Completed Project

The Bahamas is an archipelago of over 700 islands located in the western Atlantic Ocean between the United States of America, Cuba and Hispaniola. It became an English colony in 1648 and enjoyed a form of representative government with an elected House of Assembly since 1729. It was not until the end of World War I that Bahamians first articulated discontent with colonial rule in general and the undemocratic franchise of the colony in particular. This set in motion a drawn-out process of electoral reform and incremental democratisation of the franchise.

This dissertation examined this process starting with the General Assembly Elections Act of 1919, which reaffirmed a franchise limited to propertied men, to the present. Important milestones included the introduction of voting by secret ballot between 1939 and 1946, the company vote between 1946 and 1959, universal adult male suffrage in 1959, women’s suffrage in 1961, and the incremental abolition of plural voting between 1959 and 1969.

The process of electoral reform in the 20th-century Bahamas was treated as an integral aspect in the story of the decolonisation of this Caribbean territory. This included recognising the various protagonists - the colony’s political elite, civil society and the metropole - as well as their specific interests. It also analysed the effect that these reforms had on the state of democracy in the modern-day Bahamas by shaping the relationship between the postcolonial state and its citizens.

With the support of London, progressive actors in the colony succeeded in forcing the colonial ruling class to accept democratic reforms of the Bahamas’ election laws. The franchise was incrementally extended, and privileges likewise abolished. In the late 1960s, this resulted in the political stranglehold of the white minority being broken. In the national narrative, this event became known as ‘Majority Rule’, and the fight for it as the ‘Quiet Revolution’.

Since independence in 1973 the reform progress has slowed considerably. Not only is there no longer an outside body that can exercise pressure on the Bahamian legislature in the same way that the Colonial Office could, but the national narrative that has been carefully crafted after independence frowns upon any further critical examination of remaining deficiencies in the nation’s democratic constitution. Civil society, the driving force behind the twentieth-century reforms, has been largely dormant since independence. Thus, Bahamians, in a sense, remained subjects.

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