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Not surprisingly, with each new chance for a nation to vote, comes the chance to test the mettle of its electorate. In Jamaica, and many other countries, however, voters have been less and less willing to go to the polls. In our last general election, in February this year, the official turnout was about 48%, the lowest ever, but the data point in a clear downward trend since Independence.

Jamaican national election turnout 1962-2016 (Source: DiGJamaica)


Let’s say this is a reflection of both voter apathy and voter antipathy. Either way, electors are not so interested these days in casting their votes in representational races. It’s not just a Jamaican thing, either.

It’s interesting, though, that voter turnout internationally seems to be higher when specific matters are being polled, as with referendums. So, people may well be interested in having their opinions counted on issues, but are less willing to have their opinions counted in the selection of representatives. The recent UK referendum on EU membership hit a voter turnout high-water mark (see report). 

This difference between voting for people as opposed to things could be telling in many ways. It says something important about candidate selections, especially about qualities that voters now count increasingly (such as gender, race, cultural background). 

It’s rare for those who have not voted to be polled about WHY they did not vote. If they were, it could tell parties and other citizens that people are staying out of electoral races for quite legitimate reasons that reflect ‘the candidate does not represent me’. The recent US presidential elections are interesting studies. First, a largely white, racist country chose a black man to lead it. After two terms, the same country voted for a white man, displaying racist tendencies, to lead it. Is the USA schizophrenic? Well, opinions change, so what seemed a good decision can be overturned. That’s freedom of choice. But, the presidential candidates represented many different things, and embodiment of ideas was one of those, so race was neutralized. White American women certainly did not think that gender was a good calling card, as they dumped Hillary Clinton. 

It’s also the case that people often vote negatively, not positively. So, voting ‘for’ a candidate can often be a vote ‘against’ another candidate. Depending on the choices, voters may not be able to vote strategically without doing damage to their own life prospects. In the UK, the re-emergence of a viable third party (Liberal Democrats) meant that people did not need to withhold their votes totally, but could now vote for another option. When that third party returned to being a questionable option, voting patterns changed again. 

In places like Jamaica, where politics is highly partisan, electors tend to do what is known to happen in such situations–they do not vote for the other side, but instead do not turn out. We have seen this clearly in the last general and local elections in Jamaica, where the voting base for the PNP collapsed. But, on top of that, the voting for the JLP increased in the general election–a double whammy.

We also know that in Jamaica many of the so-called middle class have decided not to vote. Again, the limited studies do not make it clear whether they are just jaundiced by politics, feeling mistrust, dislike or a range of negative sentiments about politicians, or if they have just stopped caring because of politics that are not affecting their lives much. Political favours are important in Jamaica, and having the ‘wrong’ party in power can seriously damage life chances in many cases. We read and hear about the seeming partisan firing and hiring of staff when controlling parties change in Jamacica. The National Solid Waste Management Authority has a reputation for such practices, which sits awkwardly with its recent reputation of being headed by political activists. This happens, too, in the USA, but their system of republican government and its layers of federal and state controls, plus the many checks and balances renders such activity in a different light. 

Reasons for not voting vary. Some have to do with the logistics. For instance, in Jamaica, a voter must vote in a particular constituency, and transferring votes takes time. So, some students, for instance dont vote because they are ‘away’ from home districts. Things like that could be overcome by, say, some form of absentee voting, by post, electronically, or some other way. Ironically, someone could find they are in a constituency where they cannot vote, but would prefer the choices of candidates where they are, rather than the choices in their home districts. But, we also know that the voter registers include people who CANNOT vote, because they are DEAD or no longer resident. So, we need to remember how that skews the apparent turnout figures. Again, too, we have people who haven’t registered. But, we also have noncitizens (e.g. Commonwealth citizens) who can be eligible to vote. So, assessing voter behaviour requires a bit of digging around to really understand what’s going on. 

Voting systems matter, too. The first-past-the-post system left by the British has morphed into ‘garrison’ politics in Jamaica, where some seats have well over 90% voting for just one party. That may make those in the, say, 10% feel their votes are always wasted. So why bother? If Jamaica had proportional representation, then the heavy biases of ‘garrison’ politics could be neutralized to some degree if people knew that all votes really mattered, and that voting for a slate of candidates changed the electoral maths. 

But, voting aside, what should representative government be? I’m a strong proponent of representation of the people, totally. One aspect of my view is that tax payers have a significant stake in a healthy democracy, not least as one of its important financiers. I stress ‘one of’ because some argue, rightly, that non-citizens also have this role. So, foreign lenders and donors may even matter more to national financing. That truth is borne out by the fact that such financiers have a big say in how government policies are shaped. So, all the hoo-ha about voting is a bit airy, when the IMF, World Bank, EU, IDB, Chinese businesses, and other private capital providers want something in return. CHEC may have a bigger say in whether you get a new road than if you burn tyres and wave placards. 🙂

So, national tax payers are as entitled to have their views counted as much as, if not more than, voters? This is tricky. While tax payers are one group who make government possible (who do you think is funding the wages and cars?), they are difficulty to represent. It’s hard to know what tax payers want. Imagine, if each time you filed your income tax return it came with a questionnaire on government policies. In some places, voting is a little like that. In the US, voter interest is often higher because it’s not just candidates on the ballot, but issues (schools, human rights issues, etc.) So, voting in the USA can be a better gauge of public sentiment. 

It’s not practical for every GCT payment or other indirect tax levy to give you the chance to express your views about policies. Some people have tried to limit their tax paying because of protests about the direction of government policies. Tax resistance has a long and interesting history. Remember the ‘Boston Tea Party’: “No taxation, without representation!” Interesting! 

My economist bias suggests to me that governments should be more fearful of tax payer protests that voter no-shows. However, it’s easier to know a voter and to go kiss his or her baby than it is to identify the person who just paid a hefty chunk of GCT to bring in some goods. That said, we (the tax authorities, at least) can see direct tax payers, and large indirect tax payers are usually easy to see, even if they would like to stay out of full view. (Nice Jeep, Usain!)

So, as we head into Christmas, my concerns for Jamaican democracy are more about whether politicians actually deliver on promises than whether Liza and Cousin Errol made it to the polls, or if voting boxes were found hidden in a warehouse in some district. We have people who tend to respect election results, whatever. (By the way, The Gambia, we’re watching!)

We could have governments formed with 100 percent or near 0 percent voter turnout. However, ineffective government is not driven by voter turnouts. We may need to see whether a slim margin of one seat leads to better delivery on promises. Ironically, going for a bigger mandate in terms of more seats also gives the cushion (pun for free) of less pressure to deliver on promises. 

So, chew over that as you hit the turkey and Christmas pudding. Sorry, if it causes indigestion, though. 🙂