The significance of small margins in general elections since 1944


Sunday, October 22, 2017

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MANY people thought that Dr Winston Green's margin of five votes against Dr Norman Dunn in St Mary South Eastern in the 2016 General Election was a national record. Indeed, many had also thought that Dr Christopher Tufton's loss of the St Elizabeth South Western seat to Hugh Buchanan by only 13 votes in the December 2011 General Election was a national record. But neither figure holds that position of pride.

Dr Green's margin of five actually ranks fourth, and Buchanan's margin of 13 is tied on eighth with JAG Smith Jr's 13 against the PNP's Robert Saunds in the 1976 Clarendon Northern clash, while the record in St Elizabeth South Western still stands at six, which was attained by the JLP's Charles D “Poco” Wright against PNP veteran Edward VV “Dawda” Allen in the constituency's first contest in 1959. (See chart)

The smallest victory margin in a general election currently on record is three — scored by Dr Neville Gallimore against the PNP's Glenville Shaw in St Ann South Western in their 1993 tussle, which almost deprived him of his seventh term in Parliament, and he was eventually defeated by Shaw in their 1997 sequel.

The original record was four, set by “Dawda” Allen against Cleve Lewis (as Independent) in the 1955 election and which actually stood for 38 years. It was eventually equalled by former Prime Minister Hugh Shearer in 1989 when he scraped home by four votes against the PNP's Emmanuel Cousins in Clarendon South Eastern, before losing to Peter Bunting in the next battle in 1993.

Therefore, it could be argued that some of the small margins clearly sent a warning to many Members of Parliament (MPs) who had chalked up countless tenures of longevity, envisioning that victory would elude them in their next contest, and which mostly went unheeded. Such was the case of not only Shearer, Gallimore and “Dawda” Allen, but also Edwin Allen, Donald Buchanan and Harry Douglas.

Small margins have consistently been a feature of our general elections, parliamentary by-elections, magisterial recounts and High Court judgement on election petitions from the very dawn of Universal Adult Suffrage in 1944 until today. Some became political novelties in the system, while others have evoked shocks and surprises at the end of each count, depending on the individuals who won or lost, or the particular seats in which they occurred. Thus far since 1944, a total of at least 63 constituency results have been determined by less than 200 votes, and show that 37 have been less than 100 votes, 22 are less than 50, 10 are less than 20 votes, and only five results have been established in single digits.

Of the 17 general elections since 1944, only the 1983 election has been without a small margin, largely because it was boycotted by the PNP. Only the elections of 1955, 1962 and the 1958 Federal Election each produced just one small margin. However, the general elections in both 1972 and 1997 each influenced seven small marginal results of varying figures under 200 votes, the 1993 election had six small margins, and both the 1959 and 1967 elections had five each.

In fact, the first general election in December 1944 started the trend, when in Manchester Southern, the seat was declared for the PNP's Wendell Benjamin over the JLP's Lawton Bloomfield on the preliminary count and by 21 votes on the (first) final count. But after an amazing series of recounts and counter petitions by both candidates which lasted for six months until June 1945, a resident magistrate awarded the seat to Bloomfield by 100 votes, thereby unseating Benjamin whose six-month tenure in the House became the shortest on record; thereafter broken in early 1998 by Dr Warren Blake, whose brief sitting in Parliament only amounted to three months after he had won the initial recount by 188 votes against Andrew Holness, following their December 1997 encounter in St Andrew West Central.

Of course history repeated itself 30 years later in the same Manchester Southern seat in 1974 when the Supreme Court overturned Dr Douglas Manley's margin of 94 votes over the JLP's Arthur Williams, Snr in the 1972 General Election, and declared the seat for Williams by 35 votes on the grounds that ballots for Williams were tampered with by supporters of his opponent.

For obvious reasons, most small margins have occurred in the more traditional battleground seats, such as St Elizabeth South Western, St Catherine Northern, St Catherine North Eastern, Clarendon North Western, Hanover Eastern, St Andrew West Rural, St James Southern, St James South Eastern, Clarendon Northern, St Andrew Eastern and St Mary South Eastern. But although areas of all 14 parishes have had small margins over the years, certain parishes have become far mare acclimatised to small marginal results than others. For instance, a parish like St Andrew, which has the most garrison seats in the country and usually with the most thunderous margins, leads them all with some 11 marginal results below 200 votes. And while St Catherine, Clarendon and St Elizabeth have had seven each, Manchester, Trelawny and St James have each produced five, and only one each has been recorded in St Thomas, St Ann and Westmoreland.

Small margins have become so significant that at least 85 (22.6 per cent) of the 376 individuals elected to the House since 1944 have either won or lost by a margin of less than 200 votes. Perhaps the most prevalent Member has been the PNP's Phyllis Mitchell, their perennial torch bearer for St Catherine North Eastern who has figured in four small marginal results since 1993, two as a winner and two as a loser. But the list also includes some prominent front-line party leaders and personalities such as: Donald Sangster, Hugh Shearer, Michael Manley, Andrew Holness, Edwin Allen, Rose Leon, Cleve Lewis, Dudley Thompson, Dr DK Duncan, Karl Samuda, Enid Bennett, Roy McNeill, Horace Clarke, B B Coke, Dr Mavis Gilmour, John Gyles, Anthony Spaulding, Donald Buchanan, Ed Bartlett, Dr Chris Tufton, and a host of others, some of whom became more famous for their marginal exploits than for their political service.

Some major shocks were: Shearer's four in 1989, Gallimore's three in 1993, Hugh Buchanan's 13 over Dr Tufton in 2011, Hubert Wallace's 99 over Shearer in 1959, Lindel Frater's 175 against Brascoe Lee in 1989, and Jack Stephenson's 12 against John Gyles in 1972. But who can forget Michael Manley's meagre margin of 43 votes against the JLP's E K Powell in his first electoral contest in Kingston Central in 1967, an area controlled by the PNP since 1949? Manley had won on the preliminary count by 68 votes, but a series of recounts instigated by the JLP kept whittling down his margin until it reached 43. Then it was alleged that Bustamante himself ordered closure on the matter and suggested to his party to: “Leave the lad alone. We have enough seats.”

On the other hand, a few small margins have stood out as outstanding achievements by those who attained them through a variety of circumstances. Perhaps the first of those was Donald Sangster's 48 against B B Coke in the 1949 contest in St Elizabeth Southern after the reversal of their party allegiances — with Sangster moving from Independent in 1944 to JLP, and Coke moving from JLP in 1947 to Independent. There were the JLP's Robert Cecil McFarlane's 40 margin against the iconic Arthur Benjamin Lowe (Ind) in St James South Eastern in 1944, the JLP's Ernest Wakeland's 41 over Vivian Blake in the Cornwall Electoral Area of the 1958 Federal Election, Roy McNeill's 160 votes that separated him from Johnathan Grant in the 1962 St Catherine Eastern contest, Dr Mavis Gilmour's 48 against the indomitable Rose Leon on the Madame's own turf in St Andrew West Rural in 1976, Claude Clarke's 96 over Dr Kenneth Baugh in the same seat in 1989, and the indefatigable Karl Samuda's 171 against Tom Tavares-Finson in St Andrew North Central in 1993 during his brief flirtation with the PNP.

Not to be outdone, at least 10 women, including the aforementioned Phyllis Mitchell, Dr Mavis Gilmour and Rose Leon, have been either the recipient or at the losing end of small margins in general elections, which by female standards in Jamaica, is an amazing 25.6 per cent of all women elected to Parliament since 1944.

The list also includes the JLP's Esme Grant, whose only term ended by 35 votes to Jim Thompson in their 1972 Westmoreland North Eastern return match; the PNP's Violet Thompson whose stout challenge to JLP incumbent Dr Adrian Bonner in St Thomas Central ended in defeat by 121 votes in 1972; the iconic Enid Bennett, who barely managed to slip home on the rails by 85 votes in the 1993 St Catherine West Central encounter with Dr Trevor Dewdney after a most uncharacteristic bungling by the PNP in the seat; Doreen Chen, whose courage to take on the Trelawny Southern challenge in 1997 after her husband was murdered was duly rewarded by 161 votes over the JLP's Alfred Chen, after incumbent Brascoe Lee's switch from JLP to NDM played spoiler to the latter Chen's chances; Karlene Kirlew-Robertson, whose final recount margin of 62 against Douglas Vaz in the 1993 St Andrew North Eastern contest elevated her from the KSAC's youngest councillor in 1974 to a seat in Parliament's Lower House alongside her husband Paul Robertson; Sally Porteous, the former fiery deputy mayor of Mandeville, whose slim loss of only 115 votes in the 2007 Manchester Central hustle with Peter Bunting largely occurred only because Bellefield saved Bunting; and Fayval Williams, who took back the St Andrew Eastern seat from the PNP's Andre Hylton by 161 votes, which became so crucial to her party's one-seat victory in 2016.

Many famous political duels between JLP and PNP gladiators were also settled by some rather small margins. For example, Edwin Allen and Dr Percival Minott in Clarendon North Western, where after beating Minott by over 1,000 votes in 1967, Allen saw his majority slashed to 96 in 1972 and eventually went down to Minott by 34 votes in 1976. A similar tradition existed in Trelawny Northern between Elliston Wakeland and Cedric Titus. After clipping Titus by only 179 votes in his first contest in 1959, Wakeland walloped A U Belinfanti by over 1,100 votes in 1962, but could only manage a margin of 191 votes against Titus in his final contest in 1967. Donald Buchanan pummelled his old adversary Derrick Sangster by mostly small margins in four consecutive elections (1989-2007) in St Elizabeth South Western, but barely made it into the fourth term when his margin plummeted to 117 in 2002. Portland Western former icon Leopold Lynch became the first elected Member to serve for over 30 years in the House and was never beaten, but in 1959 his margin slumped to 69 against Oswald Bradshaw, who returned for a more formidable beating in 1962.

The case of many MPs who started their political careers with small marginal victories that later mushroomed into hefty margins are also quite extensive. But none can match the spectacle of Tony Spaulding who defeated JLP Speaker of the House E C L Parkinson by just 102 votes in St Andrew Southern in 1972, which surged to an almost unrealistic 10,796 margin against Carol Ramsey in 1976 — after the 105 per cent voter turnout in the seat!

In the last two general elections, five victory margins fell below 200 votes in 2011, and four were below 200 in 2016. The record is still held jointly by the 1972 and 1993 general elections when each ended up with six margins below the 200 mark.

The smallest margin in a parliamentary by-election actually occurred 70 years ago by an Independent, Cecil A Neita on January 14, 1947 in Trelawny Southern, who defeated the JLP's J H Sparkes by 193 votes, following the death of the seat's first MHR, the JLP's Matthew Morris Thelwell in October 1946.

This historical fact virtually reveals the reality that it is hardly likely that the three by-elections on October 30th will produce any marginal result at all — at least none below 200 votes. Except for Clem Tavares's first victory of 242 votes against Frank Spaulding in St Andrew South Western in1959 and, of course, Tony Spaulding's 102 against Parkinson in the St Andrew Southern contest in 1972, the two constituencies (unlike St Mary South Eastern) have no history of anything resembling small margins.

St Mary South Eastern has a far different record with many close results that have become synonymous with the seat.

Troy Caine is a political historian and analyst


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