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McPherse Thompson: A case for simultaneous elections

Published:Thursday | March 26, 2015 | 3:00 AMMcPherse Thompson

Elections lie at the heart of liberal, representative democracy and the cost of conducting them has been at the forefront of issues that have long given rise to debates on whether it would be prudent to hold general and local polls simultaneously.

In 2006, for example, Dr Lloyd Barnett, the then chairman of the election watchdog group Citizens Action for Free and Fair Elections, reportedly proposed that the Government hold general and local government elections at the same time to avoid massive costs.

The approach to conducting elections in Jamaica and other Westminster-model democracies is based on a regulatory framework that is indicative of the structure inherited upon their adoption of British parliamentary and governmental institutional characteristics.

No doubt one of the difficulties opponents of simultaneous elections could rightly point to is the length of the parliamentary term vis-‡-vis that of local government.

Notwithstanding that, some countries do conduct elections simultaneously.

 

examples of the point

 

Since 1997 in England and Wales, general elections have occurred on the same days as the annual scheduled local government elections.

Local elections are by statute held on the first Thursday in May. However, since 2004, local elections have also been delayed in years when the European Parliament is elected in order to allow the elections to be held simultaneously.

General election in the United Kingdom will next be held on May 7, 2015 and local elections are scheduled to take place on the same day across most of England.

Local elections will be held across all of Spain on May 24, 2015, while regional elections will be held on the same day in 13 of the 17 autonomous communities.

Italy is known to have held local by-elections, municipal and provincial elections on the same day. In Belgium, European elections have been eclipsed by parliamentary and regional elections held on the same day.

In Denmark, elections to local councils - municipal or regional - and to the European Parliament are held on fixed dates.

In India, elections to some State legislative assembly may be held along with the parliamentary elections. Up to 1957, simultaneous elections were held for both the lower house of parliament and the State assemblies. However, on account of early dismissal and midterm elections the two got gradually separated.

In Japan, which has at least five levels of elections, some are held simultaneously, but only in 1980 and 1986 general and regular elections coincided on the same day because the House of Representatives was dissolved in time for the elections to be scheduled together.

A Taiwanese official has suggested that the public should consider whether holding legislative and presidential elections simultaneously would help save public funds.

In South Africa, national and provincial elections are held simultaneously and municipal elections held two years later.

Elections to Sweden's national legislative body, country councils and municipal assemblies - all using roughly the same electoral system - are held concurrently.

Italy is known to have held local and general elections on the same day in 2001. However, in 2006, local elections were held a month after general elections.

The ACE Electoral Knowledge Network, an online repository on electoral processes, suggests that if legislative elections are held on the same day as presidential or local elections there are great resource savings to be made, given that the recruitment, training and deployment of polling station staff can be done for all types of elections at the same time and voters' lists, ballots and other materials can be delivered once instead of on separate occasions.

However, the decision to hold elections simultaneously or separately may also affect the results as campaign messages may be harder to get across when many elections are competing for attention at the same time.

It is also important to consider the spillover effects - voters are more likely to use local elections to reward or punish a party for its performance in the legislature if elections are held separately as opposed to simultaneously.

 

local election turnout may increase

 

As is known in Jamaica, turnout out at local election is usually lower than for general elections. However, researchers argue that where both are held on the same day, general elections might be considered to stimulate turnout for local elections, although artificially.

Last week, India's chief electoral commissioner mooted the idea of restoring the synchronicity of general and assembly elections, citing the savings the exchequer could make, a reason not divorced from proponents of the concept in Jamaica.

However, should Jamaica and no doubt some other countries reform the system and conduct general and local government elections simultaneously, opponents would perhaps feel cheated of being robbed of one of the most potent tools they have to punish or reward the government midterm if it does not perform as expected.

- Dr McPherse Thompson is the assistant business editor at the Gleaner and holds a PhD in political science. Email feedback to columns @gleanerjm.com or mcpherse.thompson@gleanerjm.com.