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Voter apathy bad for governance

Published:Thursday | June 4, 2015 | 12:00 AMDorothy Pine-McLarty
Dorothy Pine-McLarty

The following are excerpts of an address by chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ), Dorothy Pine-McLarty, made at a town hall meeting last Thursday at the Montego Bay Community College. The meeting was hosted by the ECJ and National Integrity Action.

While we work to perfect the electoral process, we must work extremely hard, as a country, to deal with a problem that is of great concern to us at the ECJ - and I am sure other interests in the society - that is the matter of voter apathy. This is one of the main causes of low voter turnout during elections, according to international research.

Too many of our people are staying away from polling stations. Too many of our people have opted out of the electoral process. Too many of our people are uninterested in what is taking place in their communities; too many don't bother to be engaged in, for example, having roads fixed; having improved health care; better water supply; or other things that will help to improve the quality of life for citizens of this country.

This cannot be good for the governance process. This cannot be good for any modern society. This cannot be good for mature, liberal, independent democracies.

This lack of interest is borne out by how we participate at election time. It is bad for general elections; but a disaster for local government elections.

We can't be happy as a country. We must be disturbed. The percentage of those who said they won't vote, according to past public opinion polls, is too high. I believe if an opinion poll were to be conducted today among Jamaicans, the numbers of 'won't vote' would still be in high double digits. This can't be acceptable.

Too many people are not exercising an important democratic right. This begs the questions: how can this be good for democracy? How can this be good for good governance.




But this is not a Jamaica problem.

After increasing for many decades, there has been a trend of decreasing voter turnout since the 1960s in most established democracies. In general, low turnout may be due to disenchantment or indifference, or even contentment. Low turnout is often considered to be undesirable, and there is much debate over the factors that affect turnout and how to increase it.

In spite of significant studies into the issue, scholars are divided on reasons for this decline. Its cause has been attributed to a wide array of economic, demographic, cultural, technological, and institutional factors.

In Jamaica, the youth and the middle class are staying away from the polls as, some say, they have become disenchanted with politics. Whatever the reasons for this, we must work together to find solutions. It is not beyond us. Let us begin today, let us examine how we can change the current state of affairs. This is not about party politics. It is not about the Jamaica Labour Party or the People's National Party or the National Democratic Movement or any other party - known or to be established.

It is about you, the people. It is about your rights, your democratic rights. It is about your responsibility, it is about our responsibility as we seek to make our communities, our country, Jamaica, a better place to live, work and raise our families.

As a country, we need to return to the days when Jamaicans had a greater level interest in the democratic process.

This is important for good governance.




The late political sociologist Professor Carl Stone, in a 1981 survey, found that a majority of those who identified something to be proud of referred to the Jamaican citizens' right to vote.

He noted then that the right to choose political leaders periodically and to exercise choice regarding which faction of leaders should govern has been invested not only with feelings of pride, but had become "valued as a means by which ordinary citizens exercise real power over the political community".

This feeling of pride in the right to vote by Jamaicans in the 1970s and 1980s translated into a relatively high voter turnout during parliamentary elections in the past. For example, in the 1976 general election, the voter turnout was 72 per cent; while in 1980 the turnout went up to 80 per cent - perhaps the most violent times in our recent modern history.

Stakeholders in this society like the Church, service clubs, business associations, and citizens' groups, including neighbourhood watches, have a critical role to play in helping to rebuild pride in the democratic right to vote in this country.

The task of getting more people to participate in this process cannot be left solely to political parties. This is not a partisan matter, as I indicated earlier. All of us must play a role.

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