Tue | Apr 25, 2017

An opportunity for reform

Published:Thursday | July 23, 2015 | 7:00 AMMcPherse Thompson, Assistant Editor - Business

The rescheduling of local government elections to December 2016 provides a good opportunity for legislators to embark on reforming Jamaica's electoral system, to hold those and general elections together when the term of the incumbent expires.

Unless there is an emergency that would require the Government to delay holding general elections by up to three months - a year first in case of war - as provided for under the Jamaican Constitution, the Portia Simpson Miller-led administration is constitutionally due to go to the polls by December 2016.

Surely, the postponement of local polls gives the chief parliamentary counsel ample time to draft legislation for it to be debated and approved in the lower and upper houses of the legislature for both elections to be held before or within the next 18 months.

Holding the ballots on the same day has already found favour with the Electoral Commission of Jamaica, with Director of Elections Orette Fisher pointing to the billion-dollar savings that could accrue from such an exercise.

Cost saving is the most practical advantage of arranging the two elections at the same time, since ballot papers can be distributed at the same time, the same voters' lists can be used and polling station personnel can be employed once instead of twice, among other things.

It is also plausible that holding simultaneous events would encourage Government's and Jamaica's electoral management body to harmonise legislation and procedures, as the electoral knowledge network, ACE, points out in reference to the conduct of referenda and national elections in countries ranging from the United States to Uruguay, Armenia, Taiwan, Slovakia, and the Cook Islands.

Despite the cost savings to which the director of elections referred, there is as yet no reliable data about the real costs of election campaigns and affiliated activities surrounding elections in Jamaica because of the lack of reporting requirements.

For example, although surveys of election costs have been undertaken by the United Nations Development Programme, consideration is only given to funds used by electoral management bodies for voter registration, education programmes and carrying out other specific mandates. The surveys do not include parties and candidates' campaign costs.

While estimates of election costs have been made for Jamaica, within the structure of the Westminster model first-past-the-post system, we can expect that campaign finance will be party-centred rather than candidate-centred because of the highly centralised party structure. Consequently, in the absence of disclosure of expenditures, it is unclear whether the $1 billion savings to which the director alluded took account of spending by political parties, candidates, and Jamaica's electoral commission and, therefore, can be counted as one and the same or as separate.

 

per-voter costs

 

Notwithstanding the comparatively moderate sum estimated to have been spent locally on elections, a study conducted by this writer found that the per-voter costs - based on the voting age population - to elect a Jamaican legislature was roughly equivalent to that in the United States, which in 2005 had a Gross National Product (GNP) per capita almost 13 times the size of the Caribbean state's.

The study also found that Jamaica, like its Caribbean neighbour Antigua and Barbuda, also outspent, per voter, richer Organisation of American States as disparate as Canada, whose GNP per capita is almost 10 times that of Jamaica, as well as Mexico, which is almost two and a half times more prosperous.

In fact, Jamaica's per voter election expenditure in the 2002 parliamentary election was more than 60 times more than Canada spent in polling for its 2004 legislative election. When compared with the 2005 parliamentary election in the United Kingdom (UK), the 2002 election in Jamaica cost 11 times more per voter, even though, based on economic indicators, the UK is more than 11 times richer than its former colony as measured by its GNP per capita.

Politically, holding local and central government elections simultaneously can also serve as a way of increasing voter turnout.

Turnout in cities that hold elections concurrently with state and national elections is usually nearly twice as high. The Silicon Valley of Santa Clara, for example, which started holding elections at the same time as state and national elections in 1988, saw voter turnout more than tripled from 24 per cent to 74 per cent.

Moreover, most American citizens do not favour the prevailing norm of off-cycle local elections with nearly 70 per cent of respondents in a study saying they preferred holding local elections at the same time as national elections.

Support for on-cycle election scheduling did not vary with respondent age, sex, education level or ethnicity and among various subgroups, large majorities reported a preference for concurrent elections rather than elections held at various times throughout the year.

Sara F. Anzia, who asked respondents about their preference in a 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study suggested that it is thus very difficult to justify the fragmented American electoral calendar as being in accordance with what its citizens want.

Perchance it is now opportune that an indepth study is conducted asking Jamaican citizens whether their preference is to vote for local and central government representatives on a single day or on different days.

n McPherse Thompson is assistant business editor and holds a PhD in political science. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and mcpherse.thompson@gleanerjm.com.