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Glenn Tucker: Make them good citizens and they will vote

Published:Sunday | March 6, 2016 | 12:00 AM
Glenn Tucker
Electors wait patiently in the broiling sun to cast their votes at the Longville Park Early Childhood Centre polling station in Clarendon South Eastern on February 25.

Many individuals and several organisations have echoed Dr Christopher Tufton's concerns about low voter turnout in this country.

Dr Tufton, a former opposition senator, is reported as saying that "... growing voter apathy can be countered by a display of political maturity by politicians ... . Political parties have not been willing to identify areas of common national interests and accept, where necessary, that they are willing to build on those gains that have been made as a country ... . If we did, it would give Jamaicans a sense that it's not just about partisan politics, but about what's in the best interest of the country ... ."

The time has come for us to spend more resources scientifically, testing the attitudes and behaviour of our fellow citizens. Voting behaviour is one of these areas.


Highest voter turnout

During the period 1960-1995, the countries with the highest voter turnout - more than 90 per cent - were Malta, Chile, Austria, and Belgium. When I don't know why you do what you do, I tend to look at other things about you for a possible explanation or outcome.

Malta is a highly industrialised, service-based economy. Chile is one of the most stable and prosperous South American nations. In terms of GDP, Austria is one of the 11 richest countries in the world. Belgium is in a similar position and ranks among the world's best for social-security systems with excellent medical coverage, unemployment, insurance coverage, child allowances, invalid benefits, and pensions as just some of the benefits guaranteed.

Austria is the fourth best in the world in terms of meeting a group of benefits described as basic human needs. It ranks first in providing clean water and very high in guaranteeing personal rights and personal freedom of choice.

Oh! Did I mention that they are not struggling with corruption the way we are? The question that remains with me is this: Is there a link between all these positive outcomes?

I can't remember when exactly; I just know it is decades ago. My late mother, who was an educator, returned from a marathon committee meeting at the Ministry of Education appearing very thoughtful. She finally declared that civics would no longer be taught in schools.

At the time, voter turnout in Jamaica was well over 82 per cent. It went as far as 86.9 per cent in 1980. In 1993, however, there was a dramatic decline of voter turnout to 67.4 per cent. This would be about the time when those children who were not civically educated had reached adulthood and could vote. Could there be a link?


developed countries

I decided to look to the United States - from whence cometh our help - and observed that despite its great wealth and influence, that country lagged behind other developed countries when it comes to voter turnout. In fact, during the 2011-2012 period when both Jamaica and the US had general elections, voter turnout was about the same - about 53 per cent. The surprise did not stop there. The United States ranks poorly on health and wellness - despite being a top spender on health care - and with just 92 per cent of children in school, I did not see it in the top-15 performers of maths and science in schools.

And what about corruption? Although it was not among the 'most corrupt', the petroleum and pharmaceutical industries alone are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in what is euphemistically called 'campaign contributions' and 'lobbying' politicians who just happen to end up giving them what they want.

For example, the total amount in contributions given by the oil industry to congressional campaigns in the 2013-2014 period was US$326 million. The total amount given by Congress to fossils in federal production and exploration subsidies during the same period is US$33.7 billion. That's US$103 earned for every US$1 spent on contributions. Not bad! I checked this in my search for 'links' that would explain certain behaviours. It turns out that civics is only taught in eight of the 50 States. And the word 'dismal' is used to describe the performance in this subject.

So Jamaica and the US - two vastly different countries in terms of wealth and power - are very much alike in some respects. And neither teaches civics. Civics is important because it helps people to understand how government works, and it provides people with knowledge about how to influence government.

So Americans are aware of the activities of the drug, oil and other large industries and the slackness that goes on in Washington at their expense. They lose life and property to strange weather events and know it's because of climate change.

They know many mass shootings are because drugs with dangerous side effects are prescribed to troubled teenagers. And they know that the oil, drug and gun lobby pay their representatives to block legislation to control these tragedies. But they feel powerless.

The 20 richest families own more than 160 million others in the US. So they don't vote, because they no longer think the politicians are working for them. This time around, two of the candidates seeking to be president presented themselves as outsiders. This has fired the imagination of the citizens. Outsiders! Who claim to be new and different and promise to reject contributions/bribes from Wall Street and large industries.


Least suitable candidate

The effect now has well-thinking Americans worried. Because the people are flocking to the least suitable candidate - a duplicitous, foul-mouthed, much-married megalomaniac with admirers in the Ku Klux Klan. His most attractive feature is his claim that he is so rich, he cannot be bribed. All the students of history who see the similarity between him and the worst tyrants of history are now scrambling to find ways to stop him.

There, as well as here, after decades of deprivation of the opportunity to cultivate knowledge and traits that sustain self-governance, the people have grown cynical and distrustful. They do not see the country providing what they want, as is the case in those countries where the citizens turn out in their numbers to vote.

In Jamaica, it has long ago ceased to be 'country'. It is now 'party'; it is the party that is giving the handouts. And even the party is treated in much the same way we older men are treated. As BOOPS. Any day, the money and other gifts stop flowing. Any day they stop being paid and fed and driven to vote, I don't expect the turnout to exceed 15 per cent - down from the 47.7 per cent the parties begged and spent so heavily to achieve on February 25. And that's because so many of us are still penned up in garrisons.

It did not surprise me that a minister of the quality of Ronald Thwaites would have seen the vacuum and reintroduced civics. I can only imagine what he would have accomplished if he had not been IMF'd. He will be sorely missed.

Before our situation gets as troublous as the US, we need to recognise that civics is not just something one learns; it is something one lives. There has to be robust training of students in the education of civics, helping them to understand the constitution, the complexities of representative government as well as civic activism. They must know that they have a stake in this country. Make them good citizens and they will vote.

• Glenn Tucker is an educator and sociologist. Email feedback to and