Mon | Dec 10, 2018

Editorial | Lessons in democracy from Jamaica

Published:Sunday | November 18, 2018 | 12:00 AM

It's another of the recent revelations about the United States that they be taught a thing or two by Jamaica about the management of elections and maintaining the legitimacy of their democracy.

When Jamaica last voted for a government in February 2016, in four of the 63 constituencies, the winning candidate polled fewer than 200 more ballots than his nearest rival, including one in which the eventual margin was a mere five votes. In another, the majority was 205. In several, it was under 300. In a handful of these contests, there were tense recounts overseen by magistrates, initiated by losing candidates dissatisfied with the declarations by the presiding officials.

These tight margins were especially significant in an election in which the winning party gained a majority of only a single seat in the legislature and meant a change of government. These tight outcomes couldn't be easy for the side that lost.

There were, of course, pockets of complaints about the conduct of voting in a few constituencies and about how the ballots were initially counted. But there weren't any orchestrated efforts to delegitimise, or sustained attempts to question, the validity of any of the results. Critically, too, insofar as there were complaints, these didn't come, at least in not any significant fashion, from the leaders of the island's two major political parties.

We are struck by the contrast between the behaviour of Jamaica's political leaders in the aftermath of this country's general election of 2016 and what has happened in America since their midterms a fortnight ago. The response of several top officials of the Republican Party, especially President Donald Trump, to what ought merely to be the natural process has been appalling.

An important underpinning of liberal democracy is the right of citizens to choose their government, expressed by voting in periodic elections. Whatever the calculation for divvying-up representation, it usually ends with the candidate, or the party, who gets the most votes, is declared the winner. That demands that all votes be counted to determine not only who got the majority, but the margin of victory.

 

PYSCHOLOGICAL DIMENSION

 

But there is also a psychological dimension to counting all the votes: it marks the individual who casts the ballot as an important participant in the democratic process, thereby helping to build support for the system.

Leaders of democracies should be exceedingly wary of actions or behaviours that breed cynicism about the process, which might contribute to a weakening of democracy. And that is the basis of concern about remarks by Donald Trump, and other leaders of the GOP, about elections in the states of Florida and Georgia, especially.

In Florida, where thousands of Jamaicans live, Governor Rick Scott contested for a US Senate seat against the incumbent Bill Nelson, a Democrat. The governorship being vacated by Mr Scott is being fought over by Republican Ron DeSantis and Democrat Andrew Gillum. In Georgia, where Republicans usually hold sway, the governor's race is between the state's outgoing secretary of state, Brian Kemp, and Stacey Abrams, who, like Mr Gillum, is black.

All of these contests have proved to be very tight, although, based on the election night returns, the Republican candidates appeared to have won by narrow margins. But for the provisos. All the votes had not been counted, including several thousands of mailed ballots. Moreover, in Florida, the law requires that if a candidate wins by less than half of one per cent, there is a machine recount of the ballots. If the plurality is less than a quarter of one per cent, there is a hand recount. In Georgia, the candidate has to receive at least 50 per cent of the votes to be elected and avoid a run-off vote.

In the case of Florida, the threshold for recounts was clearly in sight, but Mr Trump has sought to short-circuit the count, claiming that the process was being rigged against his Republican colleagues. Mr Scott, like the president, without offering evidence, had claimed fraud.

This might have been Jamaica four decades ago, before the establishment of the Electoral Commission that took the management and oversight of elections out of the hands of politicians and gave it to a body with majority independent members. It would seem strange in Jamaica if a candidate like Mr Kemp had oversight responsibility for the conduct of a poll in which he was also running.