Yearning to vote
I shall not be going to stain my finger today. I do not even know who the candidates from the different parties are for my electoral district. None of them have bothered to come around to my neighbourhood and only the PNM candidate has put up a few posters with his picture.
In fact, if I were to judge from the political meetings that were held by the various parties it would have been hard for me to guess that we were in the middle of a local government election campaign. For the most part, the candidates, the men and women who would represent us as councillors, were just used by the parties as window dressing. They were introduced in a bunch and then made to disappear into the red or yellow or green background of the stage.
But today I do not wish to talk about the campaign. There will be time enough for that later. The truth is that even if I had known who my candidates were I would still not be going to vote today. For all of my adult life, I have resolutely refused to go out and vote for any party which failed to convince me, before the election, that they would perform honestly, transparently and in the interest of the entire nation once they got into office.
And since, for all of my adult life, I have had, for the most part, only the PNM and the DLP/ULF/UNC as my choices, the decision not to vote was never difficult. I could not see myself casting a vote for either of these parties given their sorry record of racial mobilisation, corruption and incompetence.
I am fully aware of course that there are many who will condemn my point-of-view and criticise my refusal to vote as a failure to perform my civic duty. For such persons the right to vote is a precious right and carries with it the concomitant obligation to go out and vote regardless of who the parties or candidates are. If you fail to vote they say you forfeit your right to complain about which party wins office and what they do when they get there.
I am also aware that in some countries the refusal to vote is a criminal offence subject to fines. In fact, there are some 23 countries in the world with mandatory voting laws. It is true that in most of these countries such laws are not enforced, but in some of them, Australia for example, non-voters are pursued with religious zeal.
The proponents of mandatory voting argue that it encourages citizen participation and that if you know that you have to vote then you would become more active and seek to pressure the parties to respond to what you wish to see done. I understand the argument but it fails entirely to convince me.
Take for example the just concluded election campaign here in Trinidad. I do not remember a previous occasion when a campaign so swiftly degenerated into commess, bacchanal, vituperation and sheer nastiness and stayed there for the duration. And all the major parties indulged in it.
For me, the problem is that to vote for any of these parties after a campaign like that, even the party which you may consider the least worst, is in fact to approve of, vindicate and reinforce their belief that such campaigns are the way to win votes. And such a notion I emphatically do not wish to support.
It does not take an over-excited imagination to see that campaigns such as we have just been through are fundamentally contemptuous of us as citizens and deny our capacity to entertain serious discussion and argument about important issues and to make a decision based upon critical judgement.
So they regale us with jam and wine and mauvais langue. I may not be able to do anything much about it but I refuse to support those who are in effect inviting me to share their contemptuous view of who I am. You see, dear friends and gentle readers, it is not that I do not value my vote. Rather it is that I value my vote too greatly to expend it on parties such as ours.
But I do yearn to vote. With every fibre of my being I would like to go out and cast my vote and be proud to do so. That has happened to me only once in my life, when I voted for Tapia in 1976. But now there is a solution which would allow me to vote in every election and to register, even as I do so, my disavowal and disapproval of the parties and the candidates who are contesting.
On September 27 this year, the Supreme Court of India in a judgment said that the citizens of India have the right to cast a negative vote if they so wish and it instructed the elections commission of India to make this right available to citizens by including on every ballot paper, in every election, the option of “None of the Above” (NOTA).
I applaud the Solomonic wisdom of the Supreme Court of India for recognising that the right to vote includes the right to cast a negative vote and I now immediately launch into the public domain a proposal to change our election laws and rules to include on all our ballot papers the option of NOTA.
If we did so then I and others like me could stop disenfranchising ourselves and proudly go to vote without having to waste our vote by opting for a party we did not want. I would go further. Such a provision can be a means of enhancing citizens’ influence and control over political parties.
For while in India the candidate with the most votes wins, even in cases where that candidate got less votes than NOTA, here in Trinidad and Tobago we can stipulate that the candidate with most votes has to get more votes than NOTA before he or she can be declared the victor.
We can further stipulate that where none of the candidates get more votes than NOTA then all of them must forfeit their deposit and none of them can run as candidates again for that same office. Such a rule would be particularly useful in local government elections and would, once and for all, end the parade of crapaud as candidates.
Would you like to join me in this crusade?
• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer
and commentator on politics
and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean.