Editorial: Overcoming voter apathy
We doubt much has changed among Jamaicans over the past 35 years over how much they cherish the right to vote, as we were recently reminded by Dorothy Pine-McLarty.
But as Mrs Pine-McLarty observed in her remarks at a town hall meeting in Montego Bay, cherishing the right and exercising it is not the same thing. Indeed, far fewer eligible Jamaicans have been doing far less of the latter since 1980 when the late Carl Stone first recorded how much store they placed in that right.
For instance, in the 1976 general election, 85.2 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots, which, up to that time, was the highest turnout in a national vote. That, however, was surpassed in the October 1980 general election when the turnout was nearly 87 per cent. In the 2011 election, it declined to 53 per cent, the lowest in the country’s history and nearly 34 percentage points below 1980’s.
“Too many have opted out of the political process,” said the chairman of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica. “Too many people are uninterested in what is taking place in their communities.”
While we share the concern of the ECJ boss, we suspect that the lack of participation is not so much a lack of interest in community and national affairs, but a failure to be excited in involvement – either by political parties or civic organisations. It is, in part, a result of feeling that voting and, thereby, identifying with the political process, has little effect in shaping policy or their outcomes.
Political apathy and its extreme cousin, cynicism, are, of course, not unique to Jamaica. The problem exists in mature democracies where voter disenchantment, creeping since the 1960s, accelerated in the 1990s and beyond.
In the United States, for example, in the three presidential elections in the 1960s, the turnout was above 60 per cent, but has, since then, fallen to the mid-50s. In Britain, around two-thirds of registered voters still cast ballots in general elections, but that compares to nearly 78 per cent in 1992 and approximately 84 per cent in 1950.
A continuing decline is not inevitable. Which is why we believe Mrs Pine-McLarty is on to something in her call for mobilisation by societal stakeholders to help people to appreciate the utility of their vote - and to exercise it. Indeed, the evidence is that when people are clearly motivated about something, they will vote.
It is not insignificant that the 1976 and 1980 elections in Jamaica were the ones with the higher turnouts: the former when Michael Manley’s People’s National Party (PNP) mobilised around the ideology of democratic socialism and won; and the latter when Edward Seaga and his Jamaica Labour Party campaigned against what they perceived as creeping communism. Nor is it inconsequential that nearly 85 per cent of voters turned out for Scotland’s independence referendum last year. People, in these cases, felt they had a stake in something.
In Jamaica, political parties have lapsed in their capacity to mobilise and to articulate a clear vision to people. But as Mrs Pine-McLarty said, this is not only about the PNP and the JLP. It is about everyone - individual and institution - and an appreciation that votes in the ballot box have greater potency than chattering on verandas.