Wed | Aug 23, 2017

Is voting worth it?

Published:Sunday | December 6, 2015 | 12:00 AM

I ordinarily hear from people that they respect "only a few politicians". Not I. I respect most of them, admire some, and wonder if a streak of insanity (or, depending on the case, desperation) isn't part of offering oneself for the brutalisation known as political representation. I say this in spite of the glaring weaknesses of so many of our leaders, so I also accept that I hold a view that requires a lot of explanation.

Anyway, enough for today is to say that as part of this general perspective, I'm likely to encourage people to go out and vote. Vote for someone! Or something. Get in there!

Occasionally, I will read a columnist argue, for instance, that a Christian could never, in good conscience, support either of our political parties. Oh, please! Not I to sit on the sidelines, far from the scene of the contest, nursing carefully the purity of impotence. Have a Viagra!

So now I see where Director of Elections Orrette Fisher has weighed in with a plaintive cry for more votes. That's part of his job. No troubles with that. And recently, I've seen some "interesting" commentary in The Gleaner's pages tending to the view that to fail to vote is to be somewhat less than human. By "interesting", I mean, of course, incorrect. This is the vote or "shut up" idea.

Strictly speaking, the stark choice of voting or shutting up would mean that if one were incapacitated on the crucial day, travelling overseas, or stricken with an unyielding stomach bug and unwilling to chance it out into public for fear of doing something memorable, one is consigned to silence and must meekly wait and murmur not for a whole administration. But this is to answer one absurdity with another.

What is meant, more likely, is that when one is offered the chance to speak through voting, one ought not exercise the option of quiescence and inaction. And if you do, you've missed your chance.

One common exhortation among the 'get-out-the-vote media crowd' is that the forefathers fought and died for the right, so we are obliged to exercise it. But while there's undeniable rhetorical appeal in summoning the forefathers, it's of limited value. I know that my forefathers fought for their own right to vote. I think of myself as more of an accidental beneficiary than the true object of their efforts. I wonder if my forefathers particularly cared about whether I trudged out to the polls in 2011 (which I did), or would have been upset with me for not doing so in 2007 (which I did not).

But back to the point: Let's say a man didn't vote in 2007, ought he to feel constrained to be quiet for a term thereafter? Rubbish! To feel any such constraint would indicate some serious mental impairment. A citizen isn't a voting machine.

Plus, people's choices in these matters aren't simple and straightforward. I may support a party and still not vote. So, for instance, I may have wanted to punish the PNP in 2007 because of Trafigura. I may have done so by staying home. Or in 2011, I may have wished to punish the JLP for outsourcing our foreign relations to Dudus and Manatt and the cobweb of lies spun around that.

Furthermore, suppose I'm a PNP, but I like my JLP MP? I may not be willing to go out and vote JLP, but I may not want to violate my friendship with him and vote for the other candidate. Or I could be a JLP voter who likes my PNP MP. These things happen all the time, and people vote tactically and don't vote tactically, depending on the strength of their relationships and commitments.

Ultimately, the problem with voting alone is that it is a thin and insubstantial expression of civic engagement. But it has high symbolic value. And just as failing to vote doesn't mean a woman hasn't done her part, so marching into a polling booth every five years or so to mark an 'X' beside the head or the bell, or even to deface the ballot as an act of protest, by itself doesn't entitle one to self-congratulation.

 

WHAT 87 per cent turnout?

 

Incidentally, this idea that our voter turnout is cratering is also overblown. The supposed 87 per cent turnout during 1980 is constantly held up as the high watermark of voter participation. Gimme a break! There's no way there was 90 per cent voter turnout in 1980 with all the violence that had attended the run-up to that poll. Eighty-seven per cent of the votes may have been cast, but I'm quite sure it wasn't by 87 per cent of the voters! There was a vibrant proxy system in operation all over the country.

There's less skulduggery now than ever. People have to actually turn up, and gone are the days when people turned up only to find that they had voted already.

Look, I understand that columnists, journalists, and other paid-up members of the punditocracy are under an unwritten code to tell people that they must exercise the rights that their ancestors fought and died for, and horse dead and cow fat.

But it's worth remembering that people are far more sophisticated than any of us can ever write down on paper, and they know their circumstances and realities better than any of us. And when Ms Mary gets up out of her bed early in the morning and puts on her clothes because she's going out there to vote for Busta or Norman, she has her reasons locked in the corners of her heart, and she may or may not decide to let you know why.

- Daniel Thwaites is an attorney-at-law. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.