PEOPLE AND THINGS: Perplexing voter stats
By Peter Wickham | Sun, April 15, 2012 - 12:00 AM
One of the most under-researched issues related to electoral politics is that of electoral participation and the factors that cause close to 40 per cent of us to refrain from participating in Caribbean elections.
One would imagine that this type of information would be critical to the advancement of democracy in any Caribbean country, since it speaks to the behaviour of more than 90 000 people, in the case of Barbados, who opt not to participate in the election of their Government.
There are several issues that emerge, not least of which is the extent to which a 40 per cent non-participation level is high, compared to other counties in the region and world.
This simple question has been addressed previously. However, there are also related issues that are internal to Barbados which have become more critical since there has been a demonstrated cumulative fall in the level of voter participation since Independence.
This point is made in the appended chart which shows that the 2008 participation level (63.5 per cent) was an increase on that of 2003, but cumulatively represented a 2.2 per cent decrease in electoral participation. We, therefore, have a cumulative decline in electoral participation in Barbados and while that is no different from what obtains regionally, it should still be of interest to those here with a political interest.
Having established that there is a decline, the factors influencing that decline become relevant. It can be generally agreed that there are political and non-political factors influencing voter participation in addition to an overarching systemic issue related to the way in which our voter registers are maintained.
We (along with most Commonwealth Caribbean countries) maintain a system of continuous registration which means that once you are on the list, you remain there until the electoral office becomes aware of your death, mental incapacity or incarceration.
History has demonstrated that these offices are frequently unaware of status changes and are especially unaware of voters who are ineligible by virtue of the fact that they reside and have perhaps even died overseas.
Such people are therefore captured on the voters’ list, but are not practically eligible to vote.
Notwithstanding, their non-participation is reflected in the voter turnout statistics.
This type of analysis speaks largely to the systemic factors that could account for up to 15 per cent of the 40 per cent “no show” factor in Caribbean elections. As such, a re-registration exercise in St Kitts (2010) resulted in a 15 per cent reduction in the size of the voters’ list and a commensurate increase in the voter turnout there from 59 per cent in 2004, to 85 per cent in 2010.
There, however, remains a substantial portion of those not voting who appear to be refusing to participate for reasons that genuinely require explanation.
In the absence of concrete post-election research, some theorising is possible based on what CADRES has been able to surmise. The first observation relates to the impact of polling based on a 2002 British election study which concluded that the 2001 poll was “stigmatized as a boring non-contest . . . unlikely to capture public attention or energise partisan sentiments”.
Essentially, therefore, British voters were not energised since they knew the likely outcome of the election.
It is entirely possible that Caribbean or Barbadian voters reacted similarly in election years like 1986 and 1999 when the outcome of the election was relatively certain and this would explain the slight increase in the 2008 contest which was more uncertain.
The other major reason appears to be more political and related to the way in which we express our dissatisfaction with our “preferred” political party. Unlike what obtains in some developed countries where party support is more flexible, in the Caribbean, we tend to consider ourselves “wedded” to a political party and if we are either dissatisfied with, or grow tired of it, the custom is to “stop home” as distinct from voting against it.
Since this factor affects both parties from time to time, it is difficult to measure the “stop home” factor in the support for one or other political parties and CADRES has often relied on the “party popularity” measure. This measure tells us the extent to which both parties have penetrated the pool of possible support and a change in this penetration speaks volumes about the “stop home” factor.
Political parties are expected to grow their support and one would expect growth in the popularity of both parties, as reflected in the appended chart. However, it is also clear that the Barbados Labour Party (BLP) has grown more than the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) since Independence. This growth effectively means that the DLP appears to have suffered more from the “stop home” factor over the years, which is not surprising since it was previously the party with more support and therefore more support to lose.
To some extent, therefore, it can be argued that party support or more precisely party frustration would impact directly on voter participation, since it can encourage supporters to refrain from participating.
Since there appears to be a relationship between party support and voter turnout, it would seem logical that this pattern would be reflected at the level of the constituency, but this is not the case as is demonstrated in the appended table which speaks to voter turnout in all constituencies. This is presented in order of highest turnout or “above average”, “average” turnout and “below average” turnout.
It can immediately be seen that within the group of constituencies with the highest turnout are both BLP and DLP strongholds, as well as seats that have shifted, suggesting that the “stop home” factor did not impact in a major way in any of these seats.
The same can be said for the constituencies with average turnout.
However, a slight pattern emerges regarding the seats with a below average turnout since there was change in more of these than the others, suggesting that the “stop home” factor could have been important in these.
These types of trends point to an interesting area of electoral investigation in a way that is not conclusive, but show there is much to learn politically from a voter’s decision not to vote.
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