June 15, 2014

Prof Wadan Narsey: Election Issues 15 - How many voters do you really need?

OR “Do you really need 100% voter registration and 100% voter turnout to have a democratic elections”?
(The Fiji Times, 14 June 2014)

The Elections Office has already registered more than 550,000 voters.
This is pretty close to the number of all potential voters in the country, aged 18 and over.
In September, these 550,000 voters will be asked to make a very simple choice between 5 or 6 political parties, and an Independent candidate or two.
So, here is an interesting question, whose answer can be read between the lines of my previous article (The Fiji Times, 6 June 2014):
How many voters do we really need to vote, in order to get the same result as if all 550,000 voters actually voted?
SHOCKING ANSWER:  If randomly selected throughout Fiji (e.g. by the Fiji Bureau of Statistics), you would only need about 10,000 voters to vote, and the result will be pretty much the same as getting all 550,000 voters to vote.
But as I explained previously, it would be a costly exercise to select a true random sample of 10,000 voters, and if the result is very close between any two parties, then even this random sample will not be good enough.
But remember that the Tebbutt Poll asks only 1030 voters and the Razor Team only asks 600 voters, as to which Party is most popular.
So despite having almost complete coverage already, why is the government still trying to register more and more voters at great taxpayers’ expense, virtually everywhere in the world except Timbuktu?
Is it to back up the frequent claim that this will be the most democratic elections Fiji has ever had?
Cynics might say that this is a “bit rich” coming from a government which has not bothered with voters or an elected parliament for eight years.
But two practical questions voters should consider are: will having all 100% of voters registered , or having all 100% of registered voters vote, make Fiji a more perfect democracy?
What is the voter turnout in most democratic countries?
Voter turnouts and democracy
Throughout the democratic world, the percentage turnout of voters for national elections show great variation without any significant impact on the democratic process.
Voter turnout can be around 50% (as in United States or Switzerland), or around 60% (as in India), or in the 70% zone (as in UK or France), in the 80% zone (as in Australia, Sweden or Germany), or in the 90% zone (as in Belgium and Austria).
Very rarely, the outcome might have been changed, if those not voting, had voted.
For a contrary example, there is a view that in a US election not too long ago, non-white voters in one state were deliberately discouraged from voting because they would have supported the Democratic Party and that state went to the Republicans by the narrowest of margins, also thereby giving the national presidency to the Republicans that year.
But that is hardly the case in Fiji even if some political strategists might be thinking that these extra voters being registered overseas will vote for a particular party (“the best laid plans of mice and men tend to go awry” – Robert Burns).
Voters should remember that in the past Fiji elections, only some 85% to 90% of all registered voters have actually voted, and that is pretty high by international standards.
There would have been very little difference to the outcome, if the remaining 10% to 15% not voting, had actually voted.
Often those not voting are old and infirm (remember that 4% of Fiji’s potential voters are more than 70 years old), or sick, or occupied in some other activity far more important to them personally than voting for a political party who will care little about them for the next four years.
In any case, most absentee voters would have voted in exactly the same way as their other family voters, making little difference to the eventual outcome.
But of course, it always makes a great media story (on television or newspaper) to show a hundred year old staggering along or being carried to a polling booth.  Hurray for democracy!
But political parties, candidates and voters should not suffer from any illusion  that all these extra voters being registered or the small numbers not being registered, will make any great difference to the final outcome in September.
A financially responsible government would ask:  are the extra votes worth the huge extra costs to tax-payers?
Please do note that money for the September election is flowing like water under the Niagara Falls.
When all the costs are added up, these elections will be the most expensive Fiji has ever had, ironically engineered by an unelected government.
Other democratic choices?
For months now, the public has been inundated with messages that in these September elections, Fiji people will have their say on the government they want.    Again, hooray for democracy!
But why don’t we take the same principle a step further, on other  important and contentious issues where national decision making is just as urgently needed.
For example, in addition to choosing one number from 280 numbers on the ballot paper, why not also ask voters (i.e. in a national referendum):
(1) which constitution do you want? (tick one):
A         The 1997 Constitution
B         The Yash Ghai Draft Constitution
C         The 2013 Bainimarama Constitution
(2) tick “Yes” or “No” to the question: do you want the GCC returned?
(3) tick “Yes” or “No” to the question: should all Fiji citizens be called “Fijians”?

These are contentious issues on which the people of Fiji can very legitimately give their collective view on, thereby making politicians’ lives that much easier:  “if that is what the people want, let them have it”.
Who knows, if all the Opinion Polls are reasonably  accurate, the September elections might see the Fiji First Party form government
the people’s democratic choice in the three referenda might give you the majority answering A or B to question 1, and “No” to questions (2) and (3).

But that would really test the Bainimarama Government’s commitment to genuine democracy, wouldn’t it?

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