Orrette Fisher | Election malpractices and comparing voting statistics
Thanks to the reader who took the time to respond to my article in The Sunday Gleaner of December 1, 2019. In the article, I looked at possible reasons for the decline in voter turnout over the years as well as possible options to address the problem.
The reader raised two main issues.
First, the reader identified the constituencies where voter turnout during the 1970s and 1980s were exceptionally high and were suspected to have been subject to electoral malpractices. I had opted not to name the constituencies.
The second point made by the reader is that statistics given using percentages are not readily accepted by Jamaicans. He pointed to perceived difficulties being encountered by the police when reporting on crime, using percentages as evidence to support his claim.
I am not prepared to comment on the reporting of crime statistics, but will look at the use of percentages in comparing voter turnout in elections. More interesting, however, is his assertion that there is no decline in voter turnout, but that it has in fact increased.
I will seek to address both issues in turn.
MALPRACTICES IN ELECTION
Although the 1970s and 1980s are highlighted as the periods of greatest electoral turmoil following independence, there were problems plaguing the electoral system before the ’70s, which continued into the ’90s. My early experience in the 1990s has equipped me to speak from experience in comparing the system which existed then to the one currently in use.
In 1995, I had my first experience in administration of elections, as an employee of the Electoral Office. This was a by-election in the Rae Town division in the constituency of Central Kingston. This was an eye-opener and is responsible for the deep appreciation I have for how far the electoral system has come. This change from being one of the worst to being ranked among the best in the world will be examined in a future article.
Below are some of the malpractices witnessed at first hand in the by-election, and which were incorporated in a report submitted to the director of elections at the time.
1 Only indoor agents for one candidate were allowed inside the polling stations in sections of the division.
2 Despite a very moderate voter turnout in the stations observed, all had recorded full voter turnout by mid-afternoon.
3 The poll book is used to record the names of electors in the order in which they arrive at the polling station. At the close of polls, several poll books had electors listed in alphabetical order, exactly in the order they appeared on the voters’ list.
4 I witnessed election-day workers in the process of depositing ballots into boxes, with no electors present in the polling stations.
5 A booklet of 50 ballots all pre-marked for one candidate was retrieved from a polling station.
6 Electors refused to dip their fingers in the electoral ink after voting.
7 Several electors had no identification cards, yet the black books containing voter information were never employed.
As dramatic as this might sound, it is only a fraction of the irregularities observed and documented in a report, as stated earlier. It is based on this evidence that I am prepared to cast doubt on the data related to voter turnout in some constituencies, during the earlier period of our electoral history.
The electoral system has come a long way, indeed.
As stated earlier, the reader suggested that the voter turnout has not declined, but has instead increased. He also suggested that using percentages to compare data did not sit well with Jamaicans.
I firmly believe the use of percentages as a basis of comparison has its place and facilitates the comparison between “apples and apples”. The importance of this is highlighted below.
Nigeria has over 80 million electors on its voters’ list, and Jamaica close to two million. If one should try to compare voter turnout in both countries, one could hardly compare a 40-million turnout in Nigeria with a one million turnout in Jamaica, unless one-takes into consideration the number of eligible electors. In this case, approximately 50 per cent of eligible voters turned out in both cases.
Citing another example, if two entities, one with 50 members and the other with 100-each, had 25 members attending their annual general meeting, the turnout would be identical. What would be lost with just that statistic is the fact that one had 25 members who failed to show while the other had 75. This would easily be rectified in a statement indicating that one had a 50 per cent turnout and the other 25 per cent. The use of percentages in such a case is appropriate.
A quick examination of the voter turnout over the last three elections supports the reader’s claim that there was an increase in the voter turnout. In 2007, when 821,325 voters turned out, the number on the list was 1,336,307, representing a 61.5 percentage turnout. Voter turnout in 2011 was 876,310 and 882,389 in 2016, an increase of 6,079 electors. This represented a turnout of 53.2 per cent and 48.4 per cent, respectively. The electors on the list were 1,648,036 in 2011 compared with 1,824412 in 2016, an increase of 176,376.
This means the actual number of electors participating in successive parliamentary elections has increased. However, when the number of eligible electors is taken into consideration, the percentage of eligible voters who turned out declined (61.5 per cent in 2007, 53.17 per cent in 2011 and 48.4 per cent in 2016). It is important, therefore, not to confuse the voter turnout in absolute figures with the percentage turnout of eligible elections.
This makes it even more important for the base figure of eligible electors to be accurate, which can only happen if there is a credible and timely method of removing dead and otherwise ineligible voters from the list, if the statistics are to be meaningful.
- Orrette Fisher is an election management consultant and former director of elections. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org