Generally speaking, there has been a steady decline in voter turnout in Jamaica over the years. Turnout in the 2016 general election hit an all-time low of 47.7 per cent, except for the 1983 polls, which were boycotted by the People’s National Party.
This is a far cry from the 1970s and ’80s when voter turnout was upward of 70 per cent. In fact, the highest turnout of 86.9 per cent was recorded in the 1980 general election, which was won by the Jamaica Labour Party.
Research will show that the downward trend in voter turnout is not unique to Jamaica, but generally speaking, is a worldwide phenomenon. There are exceptions in places like The Bahamas and also in Australia, where voting is compulsory. Compulsory voting is often countered by citizens opting to attend the poll and leave the ballot blank or by deliberately spoiling the vote.
During the 1970s and ’80s, there were certain polling stations in Jamaica that reported 100 per cent voter turnout or more. This was usually an indication that irregularities had taken place inside the polling station. Those responsible for the illegal activity marked all the ballots, including the additional ballots available as prescribed by law. The law mandates that if an elector indicates that he or she made an error on the ballot, the spoilt ballot is retrieved and the elector is then given a fresh ballot.
Evidence of such irregularities has led many to question the accuracy of the recorded turnout during those years.
While it is clear that the percentage voter turnout is not as high as it was in the ’70’s and 80’s, there are questions as to whether the actual percentage is as low as it appears given the fact that under continuous registration, the base figure (electors on roll) is inflated by electors who have migrated or died and are no longer eligible to be on the list
So while it is accepted that there is in fact a decline, what are the contributing factors, and what, if anything, can be done to arrest and possibly reverse the trend, and whose responsibility is it to do this?
POSSIBLE REASONS FOR THE DECLINE
The fact that persons are no longer able to take over polling stations and just mark the ballots means that the results now more accurately reflect the actual turnout.
The use of technology has reduced incidences of personation, where persons were able to vote in someone else’s name.
In certain communities, residents were ordered out to vote or face the consequences of not doing so. This practice has been eliminated in some communities while in others it has waned, resulting in fewer persons going out to vote.
Other reasons include the lack of interest by some of the younger generation in politics and issues of governance. As a result, they fail to seek to exercise the right to vote.
There is also the view that some citizens have become disillusioned with politics and politicians and have made the conscious decision to stay away from the polls. They display negative feelings towards politicians or believe the difference between the parties is so miniscule that it really makes little or no difference who wins, the result being a lack of motivation to go out and vote.
Include, also, that the urge to vote, resulting from years of struggle to earn the right, is not as deeply embedded in the psyche of the current generation. As a result, the view that a single vote will not make a difference has caused many to stay away from the polls.
The reality is that the current decline in voter turnout is a combination of all these factors.
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
While many Jamaicans display a very low level of interest in the voting process, almost every Jamaican is interested in the election results as to which party will form the next government.
So can the interest in the election results be translated into having a say as to who wins the election by going out to vote?
The Electoral Commission of Jamaica and the Electoral Office of Jamaica have a role to play by ensuring that electors have no difficulty in voting. This means electors are able to vote as close to where they reside as possible and with the minimum amount of inconvenience.
Public education should ensure that electors know where to vote and how to vote. Attempts should also be made to encourage electors to go out and exercise their franchise. This must, however, be at the macro level since attempts to target specific areas or constituencies could affect the outcome of the election in the targeted area if only one party’s stronghold is successfully targeted.
The media and civil society also play a very important role in encouraging electors to vote and by promoting the importance of doing so.
In the final analysis, however, it is the politicians who have the ultimate responsibility of ensuring that the citizenry understands the importance of the democratic process and the need to vote. This should begin with a school curriculum, which educates the children at an early age on the importance of voting.
Electors must also feel assured that their elected representatives will contribute to meaningful improvements in their communities and their lives. Broad-based improvements will, hopefully, encourage electors to vote willingly and not seek to sell their vote to the highest bidder, whether paid for in cash or kind. If more and more electors are encouraged to sell their votes, it is going to become more difficult for politicians to reverse the trend.
Maybe a bigger difference in the ideologies of the parties, the ability of the leaders to motivate the populace by the articulating of issues around which the masses can coalesce, will contribute to increased voter turnout. Until the trend is reversed, the minority will continue to elect the leaders for the majority.
– Orrette Fisher is an election management consultant and former director of elections. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org