The right for all men and women of adult age to vote has for many centuries been championed as a signal of inclusion, equality and freedom to have a voice in national decision making. When one contemplates the history of voting and the subjugation of previously voiceless groups, the right to vote is a big deal! The evidence is there to show that Universal Adult Suffrage has been an important springboard for the extension of other liberties and privileges to previously oppressed groups including blacks, women and the materially poor.
The Road to Suffrage Has Been Neither Swift nor Smooth.
In South Africa, white women lobbied for voting rights for decades and achieved this in 1930 (a move documented as being a strategy to strengthen white supremacy). At this time black men of color faced numerous abuses as limited and purpose conflicting political systems were established, amended and withdrawn. It was not until the passing of the South African Constitution of 1993 that Universal Adult Suffrage was realized, ultimately leading to the 1994 election of the great, now departed Nelson Mandela. Still, in 2015 there are people in the world who can have no say in who governs them and how they are to be governed. In the Islamic Saudi Arabia, women will only have the liberty to vote for the first time this December if there is no further backtracking on the issue.
In the case of Jamaica, the struggle from slavery and since slavery has been real. Though we achieved Emancipation in 1838, the rights of Jamaicans were still severely limited thereafter. Blacks outnumbered whites 32:1, yet less than half of one percent of blacks qualified to vote, as the majority did not meet the voting criteria: they were not tax payers, they did not own land or other real property; they were seen as inconsequential ‘squatters’. Using today’s poverty indicators for the country, about twenty percent (20%) of today’s adult population would not be able to vote. (Of course, ownership of land is not a factor in PIOJ’s ‘basket of goods’ poverty methodology so that number could easily increase to high fifties since land ownership is still a high hanging fruit for many middle income Jamaicans.) Hundreds of Jamaicans had to lose their lives and others their property in the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion for slight changes to be made by the British. It took a century and six years after Emancipation, 78 years after the Morant Bay Rebellion, and several years after a series of deadly labor related riots for Universal Adult Suffrage to be achieved (1944).
The right to be a part of the governance system we now have was fought for by those who were well connected to their ancestral pride, who knew they deserved better and had the courage to step forward and demand better. The very political parties that now often demonstrate chaos, were well intended offshoots of that era of courage.
It is now 71 years since Universal Adult Suffrage was achieved, Paul Bogle, Marcus Garvey, William Grant, Alexander Bustamante, Norman Manley and many others did what they could to get closer to the reality they wanted for themselves and future generations, have subsequent generations done enough to advance the intentions of the earlier movements? Does the mark of an X today suffice useful progression? I am of the mind that the founders of the two main political parties, were they around to live as part of the current political landscape, would want more for themselves.
I believe my far relative William Alexander would be on Snapchat, WhatsApp, Pinterest, have vines and memes in circulation and have no less than a dozen Twitter accounts and half a dozen blogs linked to an advocacy website where people could easily find information about his position on pertinent issues and plans for each ministry, department and agency. I believe Garvey would be in possession of an email address for every citizen between 18 and 45 years of age and would have a team blasting weekly newsletters aiming to motivate them to action. I believe he would expect to be able to log on to the EOJ’s website and review current CVs of prospective councillors, members of parliament, cabinet ministers, senators and prime minister, their statements of intent and manifestos for each party. I believe Paul Bogle would have long made a link with Kabaka Pyramid, Jah9, Chronixx, TOK, Raging Fyah and other young talented warriors to produce content to stimulate better political sense among the population. I believe these great men would be doing much ground work to underscore the need for urgent constitutional reform; they would be very active in helping the people to understand why the first layer of government needs to be removed and why a modified Westminster system of politics would better suit their needs, culture and interests.
Our early leaders were very practiced and passionate not only in going to the people for a mandate but in declaring what they could offer; they knew how to encourage active participation.
How Should Gratitude to Bogle, Bustamante, Nanny and Others be Expressed?
#Vote and #electionja have been popular among the ‘articulate minority’ of Jamaican Twitter in recent days and the pending elections has become lunchroom and waiting line chit chat. Some proponents of the vote believe that their vote gives them a voice in the government but said proponents will strangely deny that their vote is a show of support for a political party. A vote in Jamaica is a decision to support one party over the next. It is a signal of greater confidence in the past management and future plans (or actions without plans) of one of the two parties. Under the Westminster system, how can it mean anything else?
Those who refuse to support either of the two main parties see fit to boycott the elections altogether, but does non-participation in the voting process constitute the action of an ingrate? The 1979 Maternity Leave Act (Jamaica) like Universal Adult Suffrage was born out of efforts to end discriminatory practices, in the case of the former, women prior, would lose income during maternity leave and further fear demotion, job separation or reassignment on their return. Are women therefore required to have a child during their work life to show appreciation for the rights they now have under the law?
I recall vaguely from my days as a small child, talks with my father while I would assist him during planting season by dropping peas for him, words which I internalized to mean that equality is the standard and is what was always intended. Now as an adult understanding how different forms of equality came to be regained, I contend with whether or not any specific action is necessary to demonstrate appreciation, as our expression of gratitude for the many other rights and privileges we have, is displayed mainly in our exercise of choice: to do or not do, to enjoy or not enjoy, to be or not be.
In a recent high school debate competition, the moot was mandatory voting for Jamaica. In combating an argument, the proponents suggested that even if dissatisfied, eligible voters should still play a role by spoiling their ballots. I suspect they wanted to make the case for persons consciously creating a scenario for their votes to be ‘rejected’ (not spoilt) for example, by defacing the ballot paper, not selecting a candidate or selecting more than one candidate. The rationale given was that these ‘rejected’ ballots would send a strong message of discontent to the candidates and by extension, the political system. Who would care?
Does the Rejected Vote Have a Voice?
When one considers the organization that is necessary to carry out a recall, disapproval voting during elections seems a more viable alternative. But, come next election, if 60% of the electorate in each constituency delivered ballots that would have to be rejected by the presiding officers, what would happen? So far, I have not been able to find any provision in any Act which would make such a widespread and telling action matter. Provided that one party can pull a majority of whatever number of valid votes there are, it appears rejected votes would not matter; you would simply be led by the party with majority seats.
Deep rooted in rejected votes though, could be the light bulb opportunity for new leaders to recognize the cry for change and step forward. It is often the position of talented young leaders that there is no space in the current system for new leaders. Perhaps if the non voting electorate and those who simply choose the better of the two, instead created ballots that would have to be rejected, potential new candidates would have more evidence that change is needed and find the encouragement needed to run as independents or to organize themselves as political parties.
Perhaps, not voting stifles real change more than is realized.
There are those who do not believe new candidates can provide strong competition to the two main parties because of the strong numbers of die-hard supporters among those who vote. If a healthy dose of disapproval voting is dished out at the next general elections, I believe the political culture of the existing party bases would be shattered for the election to follow. Actions suggest that the bases of the existing parties remain strong only because they are resolute about opposing each other and they enjoy opposing each other, not because they are committed to any political philosophy. Because they are the active participants, they have the political power, they are in control. Should the rest of the society decide to join the game, not with residues of the existing parties but with new and worthy talents, I imagine there would be a remarkable shift.
Call mi fool fool!
In the absence of a real Garvey like effort to instill pride and confidence in the people, the fervour for a new Jamaica has been flat for too long, we have accepted leadership by default. We continue to cast voiceless votes and demand better only for as long as the media will hear us.
As we move closer to the time when we are to make the decision concerning representation that will protect existing liberties and leadership that will steer us to achieve new liberties, what will it be? Dutty up di finga or not?
C. E. Clarke for Help Mi Consulting (c) 2015