Thu | Sep 21, 2017

McPherse Thompson | Expand voter education beyond polling procedures

Published:Thursday | June 30, 2016 | 6:00 AM

Data provided by the Electoral Commission show that at the last local government elections in March 2012, the voter turnout was under 35 per cent, which speaks volumes about the level of significance Jamaicans attach to governance at the local level.

Yet, it is local government officials, starting with councillors as divisional representatives, to which communities across the island should ideally turn for managing and delivering the range of basic services such as public health, recreational facilities, local road maintenance, provision of water, and improvement in agriculture that they habitually demand.

It is the parish councils in general which, and councillors in particular who should, represent their local community on matters of concerns to constituents since in Jamaica, as elsewhere, local government is the sphere of governance closest to the people.

 

LOOKING TO CENTRAL GOV'T

 

In the Jamaican context, the municipality of Portmore and parish councillors are expected to be sensitive to community views and responsive to local problems, although neglect of communities by local administrators, and, by extension, their members of parliament, often lead citizens to look to central government and the prime minister no less to solve problems.

This is, of course, understandable, especially in a context where councillors and other political representatives have the dubious distinction of being perceived to be derelict in their duties and responsibilities, primarily during the periods in-between elections.

The typical needs of communities are well attended by this system of government, as central government remains busy with various functions that it seldom gets time to attend to the basic problems of individual communities.

As Jamaica prepares for another parish council poll, the electorate needs to be strongly encouraged to embrace the notion that meaningful decentralisation of state power, manifested in the form of strong systems of local governance, is now recognised as key prerequisites for facilitating sustainable development and promoting good governance.

In this context, the Electoral Commission, in its mission to tackle voter apathy, should look beyond its primary mandate of conducting elections and undertaking associated activities.

It is universally accepted, certainly among democracies, that an essential factor in establishing the authenticity and maintaining the integrity of the electoral process is the active and informed participation of citizens.

As it seeks to ramp up its voter education drive, it should be cognisant that building and maintaining public confidence in the electoral process is challenging but critical as the electorate must be convinced that participating will make a difference.

Building public confidence in the electoral process requires that voters hear the voices they trust and respect from civil society, including religious and community leaders, whose support the commission can enlist. It is not enough that political parties, candidates, government authorities and the Electoral Commission conduct voter education.

As the United States-based National Democratic Institute emphasises, voter education focus has to expand beyond the procedures to fundamental questions such as why the population should trust the political system or why the electorate should participate, rather than simply telling them how to register and where, when and how to vote, the areas on which the Electoral Commission appears to concentrate its energy.

Accordingly, voter education programmes should be inclusive of promoting a sense of civic duty, increasing the electorate's knowledge of democratic principles, political and human rights, respect for electoral outcomes and the value of the vote.

Jamaica's Electoral Commission could follow the institute's lead and draw on a range of voter education techniques, including the use of non-partisan posters, pamphlets and buttons, voter awareness kits, as well as newspaper, radio and television announcements.

Giving it the seriousness and depth it deserves, the commission can initiate voter education and electoral participation interventions using those and other techniques, specifically with a view to positively impacting the voter turnout.

- McPherse Thompson is Assistant Business Editor at The Gleaner and holds a PhD in Political Science. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and mcpherse.thompson@gleanerjm.com