An electoral lesson from America
If there’s one important lesson for other democracies that came out of last year’s presidential election in the United States, it is the utter importance of every voter seeing it as his or her bounden duty to go out on election day and cast a ballot for the candidate or party of his or her choice.
This way, the spirit of democracy, as a producer of a government of the people, for the people and by the people, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently put it, is given full expression and the chances of the election result representing the true wishes of a majority of the people are considerably enhanced.
Last November, millions of American voters seemingly did not appreciate the value of voting in a country where turn-out is usually lower than in many other democracies. However, after Donald Trump was declared as the next occupant of the White House, they took to the streets in protest, believing their democracy which they took for granted, had been hijacked.
By then, however, it was too late and the country’s political fate for the next four years was effectively sealed. Trump won, not on the basis of capturing the popular vote which went to his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton, but through securing victories in key states that allowed him to qualify to benefit from a majority of votes in the Electoral College.
Had voter turn-out been greater in those key states to ensure that Clinton triumphed, Trump most likely would not be in the White House today. There are voters who naturally may feel powerless as far as influencing the final outcome of an election but, in reality, a single vote has tremendous power because it can be the only difference between a majority and a minority.
We make this point, with reference to the US presidential election, because with an approaching general election here in Barbados, some observers and commentators are speaking of the possibility of a lower than usual turn-out because of widespread voter disenchantment with the performance of the
two major parties which have taken turns running the Government over the last 50 years.
The latest person to weigh in on this debate was Queen’s Counsel Keith Simmons, who served as Member of Parliament for St James South from 1986 to 1994 and held several Cabinet portfolios, including Education and Justice, in the then Democratic Labour Party (DLP) Government headed by Sir Lloyd Sandiford.
Speaking with this publication, Simmons, who voted ‘yes’ in the historic parliamentary no confidence vote of 1994 that brought down then Prime Minister Sandiford, said Barbadians today were so fed up with both the DLP and the main Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) and had issues with the leadership in both instances that he expected many Barbadians will not vote at the next general election, due within a year.
“ . . . We have a serious problem . . . . I believe that the turnout at the next general election will be the lowest in the history of Barbados because people are fed up with politicians on both sides. From my experience of walking the road, a lot of people are not going to vote. If they get a turnout of 45 per cent, they are lucky,” Simmons predicted.
Should this prediction come to pass, where will it leave us? Could it be on this basis that Prime Minister Freundel Stuart so confidently predicted victory for the DLP, even though its popularity has plummeted, when he addressed a special conference of the DLP last weekend? Low turn-outs, in our case, are seen as favouring the incumbent while the opposite is seen as supportive of the Opposition and a change in Government.
It is not our business to tell Barbadians which party they should vote for. That is a personal decision. However, we think it is important enough to impress on Barbadians the importance of going out and casting their ballot. The right to vote should not be treated lightly. It is an important responsibility of citizenship in a democracy. Besides, in many countries, persons sacrificed their lives in the struggle for the right to vote and have a say in the government of the country.
We would urge mass-based non-governmental organizations of influence, especially the church and trade union movement, to encourage their members to vote through public education programmes. Let us not face a situation, as was the case in the United States last year, where millions regretted their lack of participation in the ballot. Rather, let it be a case where, after the result of the next election is announced, we can proudly say as a people that democracy has triumphed because we did what was expected of us – We voted.