Editorial: ECJ must not lose focus
When Jamaicans elected their government a fortnight ago, merely 47 per cent of them bothered to cast ballots. Forty years ago, in 1976, 85 per cent of the electorate voted. Four years later, the figure was 87 per cent.
Since then, voter participation has been on a slow southern trajectory, although the rate of descent has accelerated in the last two electoral cycles. For the 2007 general election, the turnout was above 61 per cent, but slumped by more than eight percentage points in 2011, before dipping further this past February.
In the circumstances, it is understandable, laudatory even, that the Electoral Commission of Jamaica (ECJ) would want to do something about the declining voter participation, which, according to conventional wisdom, is a threat to the country's democracy.
But that, fundamentally, isn't its job. More important, though, is that the ECJ risks misplacing its priorities.
We highlight this issue against the backdrop of a report last week by this newspaper of concern raised by the ECJ's chairman, Dorothy Pine-McLarty, about voter apathy and her intention to have the commission do something about it.
"One of the things we have already implemented," Mrs Pine-McLarty said, "is that our public relations officer is going to be looking at social media regularly and sending report to us, the commissioners ... so that we can get a feel of the thinking that's out there. Hopefully, that will help us in our deliberations and we will find a way of reaching out."
We remind the commissioners that their principal objective, under Section 5 of the law that established the ECJ, is that it is to "safeguard the democratic foundations of Jamaica by enabling eligible electors to elect, through free and fair elections, their representatives to govern Jamaica".
Indeed, its functions, as specified by the law, at Section 6, deals, rightly, with practical matters such as establishing policies for the registration of voters; compiling a register of voters; ensuring that the identity of voters is in accordance with the people on the list; and the general management of the electoral process, including the registration of political parties.
QUESTION OF PRIORITIES
The ECJ will likely claim a wider interpretation of its responsibilities by drawing attention to Section 6 (m) of the act, which also mandates it to "conduct research on electoral matters and publish materials to enhance the electoral process". On that score, the commissioners may well be right.
But again, it's a question of priorities. The commission has gone a long way in transforming a significantly dysfunctional system to one that is often celebrated, by concentrating on the nuts and bolts, in particular the establishment of systems that strike at electoral fraud.
There is, however, much more work to do, not least being a full reverification of the voters register to remove, if they exist, duplications, and to clean it of people who may have died or emigrated.
We endorse, too, Mrs Pine-McLarty's suggested initiatives for making it easier for eligible voters to cast ballots. Putting in place the mechanisms to manage and police political parties and campaigning financing rules should also be commanding the urgent attention of the ECJ.
While Mrs Pine-McLarty's commission has a legitimate stake in the issue of voter apathy and its impact on their work, there are other institutions capable of engaging the society on philosophical aspects of democracy and its relationship to voter participation.