The vitality of the voters' list


Thursday, March 21, 2019

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I am carrying on where I left off last week with my column 'By-elections and manipulation'.

The declared winner in a constituency in the case of the House of Representatives or in an electoral division in the case of local government election usually achieves this by being organised. And the method of organisation can be likened to a two-legged table. One 'leg' is for candidates to ensure that their supporters are on the voters' list. The other 'leg' is to bring out supporters who are on the list to vote on election day.

I argue that campaign issues are used by politicians as an alibi and a cover for winning or losing. And some current affairs analysts, perhaps unwittingly, help to make their alibi believable when they say that this or that issue are factors that determine which political party wins or loses elections in Jamaica. I happen to know that some politicians privately laugh when they hear this.

For example, despite many political scandals over several decades involving the two major political parties, there have never been so many scandals in a two-year period as between 2016 and 2018. But that might not be a determining factor at all in whoever wins the by-election in Portland Eastern on April 4,2019.

Sometime ago winners of a competition sponsored by a well-known commodity company were handed trolleys to speedily pick up as many items as possible from the shelves in about two minutes. Elections in Jamaica are won by speedily getting more voters than other candidates into the polling station before 5:00 pm. It is literally a race.

On an All Angles programme on Television Jamaica in 2007, Raymond Pryce predicted that the People's National Party (PNP) would win in certain constituencies in the general election of later that year. The Jamaica Labour Party's (JLP) Collin Virtue agreed that the PNP had a majority in the constituencies mentioned, but asked what percentage of those voters the PNP could bring to the polls. In other words, what was the state of the PNP organisation?

Fifty years ago, on March 18, 1969, there was a local government election. In February 1967, the JLP won a second consecutive term of office and Donald Sangster became prime minister, albeit for only 48 days before he died. The Opposition PNP, then led by Norman Manley, protested that thousands had been left off the voters' list and that some constituencies had been unfairly carved to suit the geographical pattern of JLP supporters. Nevertheless, the same voters' list compiled in 1966 for the 1967 election was used in the 1969 local government elections a month after Michael Manley became president of the PNP.

The JLP won the local government elections in 1969. But had it been a general election the PNP would have won 27 seats to the JLP's 26 in the then 53-seat House of Representatives. It was not so much a swing to the PNP, but because there is usually a low voter turnout in local government elections.

In 1969, The Gleaner ran a competition for anyone who could spot the most winners in the local government elections. The first prize winner got all but one result right. His one mistake was that the JLP would win the Cedar Valley Division in St Thomas. It was won by an independent candidate who was the immediate former JLP councillor for the division. Most of the Labourites evidently voted for him as the JLP candidate only received 55 votes.

Although the JLP won that local government election, the winner of the competition was Kenneth Chinn-Onn, the research officer of the PNP who became the PNP general secretary in 1972. I believe that Chinn-Onn studied the voting pattern in 1967, since it was the same voters' list. Then he might have subtracted a certain percentage for the usually lower voter turnout in local government elections. And by research he knew who would win by personal popularity. But the key factor in his 'on target' accuracy was again the voters' list.

After the local government elections in 1969 there was an enumeration exercise and the same voters' list was used three years later in the 1972 General Election. Again, the PNP protested. But the PNP led by Michael Manley won the general election in 1972 because of a massive swing to it that even an aging list could not prevent.

In the 1970s, the JLP led by Edward Seaga demanded electoral reform and the demands were achieved. But, despite their demands for electoral reform in the 1970s, Edward Seaga as prime minister of Jamaica called a snap election in 1983 on an a three-year-old voters' list. The PNP boycotted those elections. Again, the voters' list was the factor in 'crying foul'.

And because the voters' list is vital in Jamaican elections, by-election results are sometimes manipulated by an abuse of entitlement to transfer votes. I raised a concern in my column last week but I have since been told that transfer votes are not possible for the by-election in Portland Eastern. This is because new or transferred voters cannot vote until after May 31 when the present enumeration exercise is completed. I am happy for that update. But it was possible in St Mary South Eastern as the by-elections there, in St Andrew Southern and St Andrew South Western were delayed until after the exercise was completed. What was the reason for the delay? The law needs to be adjusted.

Last week, I asked readers to download from the Internet Damion Crawford's entire speech at the PNP rally in Port Antonio to form a balanced opinion. Clearly, Ann-Marie Vaz agrees with me that it was a good speech in saying quite correctly that 'pretty talk' does not get things done. At least she realises that the speech was 'pretty'.

Neither pretty nor ugly talk wins elections in Jamaica, but organisation does, in which the voters list is crucial. It is time that most Jamaicans return to looking at the issues to determine who governs us.

Michael Burke is a research consultant, historian and current affairs analyst. Send comments to the Observer or

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