Apathy in voter registration; a disturbing trend

30 Nov 2018

BY DAN MOLAODI

The recent voter registration exercise in preparation for the 2019 general elections has elapsed and there is need to reflect on the very processes that precede the actual holding of the elections on voting day. One such processes and a very primary and critical one is the registration of voters, for without anybody registering then there is no voting. The numbers that the Independent Electoral Commission is reporting after this voter registration process are not encouraging for those who believe in the virtue and importance of numbers in any election. It is apparent that the legislative processes have no option but to sanction a supplementary voter registration with the hope that it would jerk up and substantially raise the numbers to acceptable levels. On the background of this, I try to explore some possible reasons for why as Batswana we don’t register in large numbers, why we should actually bother to vote and possible exploration of a way to legislate and ensure a high voter turn up.

The print and electronic media has had numerous discussions on it, political parties had their inputs and so did the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), as well as the public in their varied groupings. I will, therefore, be simply adding my voice to this national concern, that of low voter turnover for registration. First, let’s explore the reasons often associated with people not turning up to register.  The first is that voting is personally costly because it takes time to just go and register and presumably most people cannot afford to lose this time, irrespective of whether they actually use this time productively or not. It can be also costly to learn candidates’ views as you have to follow them to freedom squares/rallies and for some having to leave work to go and vote on election day is a cost, in addition one has to stand on long lines, sometimes in harsh weather, in our case it could be raining or very hot. An additional and key factor that has come up often in this discussion is that unlike any other election preparatory stage in the past, it would seem that for the first time the voter registration took place at a time when there is virtually turmoil and instability in both the ruling party and opposition parties.

In weighing these costs and the often held view by some that my individual vote may actually have a zero impact in determining who wins or any envisaged change, then some would most probably choose not to register. That’s the rational human being whose thinking agrees with that of one Paul Meehl (2008) when he said that:“ the probability that I’ll be the deciding vote …….in a presidential election is much smaller than the chance that I’ll get hit by a car on the way to the polls”

It is therefore clear that in our midst are people who think like Paul and to them both registering and voting are essentially irrational ventures hence they choose not to take interest in both.  Obviously some of us do not subscribe to this line of thinking and therefore push the political reason for voting and this is that voting is as some put it a “sacred right” that citizens must exercise and enjoy to nurture and enrich the democratic process of a republic such as ours. In the words of one great man of the past, when our founding fathers gave us this Republic, our duty is to keep it and ensure its sustained growth as an admirable and preferred political dispensation that we all cherish and zealously protect. Registration for voting and actually going to vote on Election Day is one avenue of how we can protect this republic as a nation.

There is growing concern that the state of instability that currently characterises both the Botswana Democratic Party (BDP) and the opposition coalition is in itself a disincentive for voter registration. The uncertainty of the stability of the contending parties and the associated delay in selecting or announcing the candidates to represent parties has been mentioned as one issue that could have negatively affected the registration turn up. The choice and knowledge of candidates is argued to be playing a critical role on where individuals choose to register and vote and the current situation where a lot of areas still don’t have candidates has led some to withhold their registration. This is so because people argue that the process of changing registration is also restrictive because you cannot change on account of who the candidates are and this has also contributed to the low turnover.

There are also complaints about politicians not listening to the public, failing to address public problems, in our case problems of unemployment/underemployment, failing school system/structures, difficulty in accessing services and resources such as land, power and water issues among others. All these require that we elect people whom we believe can making the necessary decisions to make things better and if we don’t vote then we have no reason to complain if those voted take no interest in our problems. Our elected officials are guided by our patterns of voting, if we don’t vote that’s a clear message to them that we don’t care what they do and that is obviously a very dangerous implicit statement to make.

What can be done? Should we follow the route taken by countries like Australia, Belgium, Argentina and others, who have made voting compulsory by law? Voter turn over in these countries is normally very high especially that in some of them after every election those who did not vote must explain themselves and are actually liable to pay a fee if their reasons are not convincing. This is to try and limit the impact of the known behaviour under voluntary voting and that is, when most people believe that the chance that the result will be determined by any single person’s vote are remote, even the slightest excuse/cost like the time one takes to go and register and to stand in line during voting day, is more than sufficient to make both registration and voting irrational decisions.

All said and done come Election Day the registered minority will decide the fate of our governance processes and the fate on our country and in my view when such happens let the majority simply die in their silence because they have abrogated their “sacred right”.