Turn out for what?


Turn out for what?

Voter absence, knowledge and expectation

Christopher Burns

Sunday, September 20, 2020

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There is no need for anyone to pussyfoot around the chain of causation of voter apathy and the correlation between that and recent low voter participation rates. No prime minister, however well-celebrated and youthful, can take comfort in the fact that the Government he or she leads rests on a measly 21.3 per cent of registered voter support. No Opposition party is worth its salt if it can only garner 16 per cent of registered voter support. Governance is most difficult when upwards of 66 per cent (6.6 out of every 10 voters) stand in stark disagreement or indifference to the policies and programmes by which that Government was elected.

To put it bluntly, years of political malaise, under-representation, skulduggery, and broken promises have turned off a great many voters. And to make matters worse, deliberate acts of political benightedness and depravation, tribalisation, trivialisation of our democratic process, lack of civic pride and interest, big-money influence and involvement – without regard for ethical altruism or political morality —the absence of inspirational leadership, and just sheer intellectual dishonesty are but few reasons for the steady decline in voter interest and participation in the last three parliamentary election cycles.

According to data compiled from the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) website, despite the addition of approximately 910,811 registered voters to the national voters' list between 1997 and 2020— a 91 per cent increase over 1993 — only a net 39,512 (4.3 per cent) more registered voters cast ballots between 1997 and 2020.

Therefore, voter apathy is not purely an “Andrew” phenomenon. Fifty-three per cent of registered voters participated in the 2011 parliamentary election even though that election was a highly charged “change” election, coming as it did in the aftermath of the Manatt Affair and the Commission of Enquiry into the Extradition Request for Christopher “Dudus” Coke. That 53 per cent voter participation rate was, however, down by 8.3 percentage points versus the 61.5 per cent voter turnout in 2007, when the Portia “Mama P” Simpson Miller-led People's National Party (PNP) was defeated by the urbane Bruce Golding-led Jamaica Labour Party (JLP).

For context, 515,000 registered voters stayed away from the polls in 2007. That number grew to 772,000 in 2011, before deteriorating to 942,000 in 2016. Those declines notwithstanding, the biggest decline came in 2020, when a whopping 1.199 million registered voters refused to exercise their franchise. Cumulatively, voter participation has declined by 27.9 per cent between 1997 and 2020.

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the voter apathy, but the patient must be as willing to receive healing as the doctor is as anxious and competent to administer the balm. First, our political directorate and those aspiring for political office must rend their souls of the hypocrisy that often forces them into cul-de-sacs of moral and ethical compromise. They must stop presenting themselves to voters as their lawyers, butchers, bakers, curried-goat providers, obeahmen, pastors, rum drinkers, undertakers, plumbers, political “Joe-Grinds”, tailors, and shoemakers. That is not what politics is supposed to be about. Yet, sadly, too many of our politicians have succumbed to that culture and it has not accrued to benefit the majority who continue to face the hellish state of poverty and despondency.

Voter apathy will continue so long as politicians and political parties institutionalise the “I can do all things” culture in their quest to win votes and attain power. Politics ought to concern itself with doing for those that which they, collectively or individually, cannot do for themselves. It is about empathy and compassion whilst discouraging dependency and laying foundations only for cynicism to immobilise people's head, hands, or heart, thus causing them to see the politicians as indispensable to their very survival. And so, the politicians know how to play them like gigs until the next election cycle comes around. Politics ought to be about enabling, empowering, facilitating, providing equality of opportunity, and treating everyone with the respect and dignity they deserve.

Teaching civics as a core feature on the curriculum — from community and basic school levels to university levels — could help to fix voter apathy and drive increases in voter participation. If the citizenry knows and understands the role of government, if they can distinguish between the three branches [the judiciary, the legislative, and the executive) it would go far in helping them to manage their expectations as what governments can or cannot do regardless of what they promise during election time. This is one way to reduce political 'buyer's remorse' and recalibrate citizen activism and volunteerism. Teaching civics could provide the context within which to introduce concepts such a sweat equity as part of the development chain.

Many Jamaicans do not know, for instance, that “The Jamaican Constitution” reflects the British sociopolitical model known as the Westminster system of government. That model guarantees that citizens, through universal adult suffrage, have the right to participate in free and fair elections to choose representatives to govern the country. And so voters do not have to sell their votes. They have every right to reject and report any politician who acts in contravention of the “free” vote feature of our democratic traditions — dire economic circumstances notwithstanding.

Too many of our fellow citizens do not know that Prime Minister Andrew Holness is not the head of the Jamaican State. He is the head of the Government. The head of State is Queen Elizabeth II. Her representative is Governor General Sir Patrick Allen, who appoints the prime minister, deputy prime minister, leader of the Opposition, members of the Cabinet, the chief justice, president of the court of appeal, ministers of state, judges of the court of appeal, chairs of the Public Services Commissions, and the director of public prosecutions.

Many Jamaicans do not know, for example, that it does not matter how much they preach like Peter or pray like Paul to the prime minister; it is not within his remit to grant “pardon”. The governor general is solely responsible for granting the prerogative of mercy to convicted offenders upon the advice of the Privy Council. And many don't know that no Bill can become law until and unless the governor general grants formal assent. Calls for “we want justice” without full understanding of the rule of law, the fundamental charter of rights, the constitution, due process under the law, or from whence justice comes, are contributory factors to voter apathy.

If we are serious about correcting voter apathy then it is the responsibility of the State, in collaboration with academia, to devise a plan to simplify and condense the Charter of Fundamental Right and Freedoms, as well as the constitution into pocket-sized format and make them available to all Jamaicans. If we want to fix voter apathy, then politicians must give voters something to vote for —something that will redound to their collective and individual benefit. Our Government must be willing to amend our constitution such that it grants justiciable rights, such as the right to an education, health care, housing, running water, etc.

Admittedly, granting justiciable rights is not a cheap transformation, but it guarantees certain outcomes and narrows the gap between promises and outcomes. At the very least, it could solve the lethargy that comes from broken promises. Justiciable rights mean that “when violations occur, there exists a right to an effective remedy — in this case, a judicial remedy. Access to justice is important because it provides an opportunity to hold violators to account, deters others from violating fundamental human rights, and discourages impunity…” If rights are justiciable courts can “ensure that the State is held accountable for its actions, in accordance with international, regional, and domestic human rights obligations. It also means that civil society can be more effective in campaigning, advocating, and mobilising for accountability and change…”

One of the other balms in Gilead for voter apathy is restoration of an effective and sustainable “values and attitude” campaign; one that focuses on civic responsibility, tolerance, good common-behaviour and manners, and ethics. Something is radically wrong when a voter, whether financially motivated, or just greedy, allows political nitwits to buy his vote, essentially selling one's soul and mortgaging one's children's future in exchange for $5,000.

If the prime minister is serious about “building back stronger” he must become a drum major against corruption in all its overt and covert forms. The approach cannot be cloaked in convenient contemporary lingua franca that dilutes the message or the campaign.

There are too many Jamaicans who, unfortunately, see and accept corruption as a sub-cultural pastime that poses little or no threat to national development, security, or societal acceleration. The message must be simple such that when the word “corruption” is used an old man in deep-rural Jamaica will not equate it with a foul smelling maggot-infested open wound. It must be of such that he knows that somebody “thief poor people money”. It rests in the hands of the prime minister and his Government to advance effective and comprehensive campaign finance reforms that limit the influence of “big money” in the political process. Without reforms, the country could descend into chaos when “the few” financiers do not get their way to influence the governance process. When the average voter sees members of the oligarchy getting away with “blue murder” and he has to face “living hell” for the simplest of misdemeanours —that voter is not going to be excited about voting.

Voter apathy is largely driven by voter frustration with successive governments' inability to solve many of the obdurate socio-economic problems that have plagued the country for the last 60-odd years. To them it makes no sense to vote when simple things like running water, access to electricity, traversable roads, health clinics and hospitals, safe streets, crime-free communities, education, and basic housing are unavailable, and when they are available they are priced way beyond their ability to pay for or acquire them. Voters do not sleep on balance sheets nor do they eat projections. Spit balls cannot buy bread. Therefore, there must be sufficient tangible incentives, beyond verbal motivation, cheap talk, and a couple of “Shearers” for voters to go out in droves to vote.

It has taken our governments far too long to fix the little things that make big differences in people's lives. There is no comfort that anyone can offer a family who, for whatever reasons, must make pillows out of rock stones. Too many of our citizens live in abject poverty and squalor— the pains of life are instant disincentives to voting.

Voter apathy is also largely driven by socio-economic inequalities that have beset us for way too long. Think about our economic structure that disincentivises , emerging businesses and business owners. There must be a process that levels the playing field in ways that give “tear-out cratches” John from Mosquito Hole in St Mary, the same equality of opportunity and access to financial capital that it gives “Oxford of London” cotton shirt-wearing Johnny from Cherry Gardens. After all, all citizenship is sovereign. There are talented people of all ages and social backgrounds just waiting for an opportunity to exhale — Government can become that facilitator to encourage capital formation among stakeholders to support joint venture initiatives.

Voter apathy is an offshoot of years of using State resources for social control instead of social and economic empowerment and investment. There is a balm in Gilead after all.

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