voter education

Voter registration is not as important as voter education.

The term “young democracy” is an insult to most African and Asian states. When the European Union or the United States of America sends election observers to Africa, their observations are usually laced with the phrase, “young democracy”. – In Africa, we just attempt democracy. What we do is child’s play, an imitation of what real democracy is, something far from what the proponents of democracy intended it to be.

The ideal democracy presumes that voters are informed and therefore their decisions are rational, it presumes that elections are competitive and that the result will be free and fair. What is rationality? Rationality in democracy is subject to voter education. Voters are presumed to know the social and economic issues of their age, and that the candidate they choose is one whose manifesto gives a remedy to those issues. That’s why even in young democracies such as ours, candidates have manifestos.

It of course goes without saying that very often, these manifestos are not original but they are a mere copy-paste collection of words from other manifestos. Case in point is Uganda’s Forum for Democratic Change Kiiza Besigye’s manifesto for 2011 elections which was a replica of David Cameron’s Conservative Party manifesto. To candidates, to the electorate and to the elections body, manifestos are just a matter of procedure, procedure that is a mere technicality, one that doesn’t really serve any purpose, one that is a redundant registration requirement.

Voting should be an informed decision, one that a voter makes well aware of the consequences of his or her action. It is true, most citizens do not cast their votes. They are convinced that whoever holds a political office has no effect on their wellbeing. Matters of voting are left to another class of citizens, especially to those who are in rural areas. The irony of this is that it is the people in urban centres who have easy access to information through the main stream media – television, newspapers, and social media, who do not vote. They leave political decisions to their fellow citizens who are usually less informed.

Sadly, voter education seems not to be a priority for the elections body. Neither have we seen civil societies take up the role of voter education. Is it right to presume that since the elections are in August, it is early to start on voter education? But how early is it, yet politicians have already started on their campaigns? Whereas politicians are calling for mass registration of voters, civil societies and the elections body are not educating the public on how to vote. The “how” is not just about indicating one’s choice by ticking in the box in front of their name or indicating by any mark, the choice of their candidate. The “how” is so much more. It entails educating the voters on their rights, convincing them that it is not a matter of choice but a civic duty to cast one’s vote, teaching them about the present political system and how it works, informing them about which political positions are up for elections, and from where they can cast their votes.

Voter education is more important than voter registration because voter ignorance undermines the purpose of democracy. Voter ignorance is what facilitates election crimes like voter bribery. Should a citizen cast their vote for candidate XYZ because XYZ has bought them a jerry can of local liquor? The rational answer to that question is no. But go and find out what happens in the rural areas where voter turnout is close to one hundred percent. Citizens cast their votes for a packet of salt, for a glass of changaa on the voting day, for a few shillings on the voting day, for a plate of ugali and a few pieces of nyama choma.

More so, citizens cast their vote on the basis of ethnicity. It’s an “us against them” period when anyone talks of elections. It is as if a candidate’s tribe is motivation for his kin to go out and vote. – His kin must be seen to be bringing one of their own to power. These things are not only happening in Kenya. They happen even in Uganda, in Tanzania and very many other African states. This is not how democracy is supposed to be.

Voter turnout is another issue. The elite do not vote. They do not care who holds political office. They only cast their vote in their intellectual debates at the office cafeteria, and they even give their opinions on Facebook. Whenever there is a political rally, they tweet non-stop about every point made by a candidate. They remember to hash tag their tweets. They know their tweet matters. They are just not into casting the real vote. The elections body must also reach out to this category of people.

It is the duty of the elections body, the civil society and the international players to ensure voter education happens. They must do the following:

The elections body should develop and disseminate accurate and politically neutral information meant to educate voters about their civic duties and rights related to voting. This information should be circulated all around the country. It should be disseminated soon and throughout the voting period. The educations should also target special groups of people such as women, youth, children, displaced persons, and persons with disabilities. Programs meant to foster voter education should also be gender sensitive, to ensure that women are not left out.

The elections body should also start initiatives meant to foster national unity and peace building to avoid post-election violence. Initiatives that support the equality of men and women should also be put in place to discourage family and proxy voting.

The civil society should also carry out civic education in all parts of the country to encourage the importance of participating in the election process. They should also discourage family and proxy voting and encourage women and other special groups to register and to vote a person whose manifesto provides remedies for the issues that affect them.

The civil society should also condemn divisive politics and the politicians who perpetuate such politics. They must not wait to make their voice heard only when there is trouble. Preventive measures against post-election violence and election-related conflicts should be put in place.

International players should support civic educations initiatives by the elections body and other national players through finding and carrying out joint civic education with national players.

BY SAMALI BITALA

This article appears in our weekly digital law magazine, The Deuteronomy Vol 1, Issue 4 of January 27th 2017

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