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Dissecting voter apathy, null and void votes

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Shakira Ngalande, a mobile money service provider merchant at Kamuzu Road in Salima District, does not want to mince her words.

“It was the fear that their vote would be manipulated again in the court-sanctioned fresh presidential election that discouraged some registered voters from casting their ballots,” she said.

Ngalande, a third time voter from Chikombe Village in Traditional Authority (T/A) Kalonga in the district, stressed that the change of leadership at the Malawi Electoral Commission (Mec) did not help the pollster in regaining public trust.

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She said people’s doubt in the credibility and integrity of the commission still lingered on even after the new Mec chairperson Justice Chifundo Kachale had assured them that they would deliver an election acceptable, credible, free and fair fresh presidential poll on June 23, 2020.

“Mec and Nice [National Initiative for Civic Education] trust intensified their efforts to mobilise voters to cast their ballots on June 23, 2020. But still more, many Malawians did not see the need to vote as they feared that their vote would be manipulated again,” Ngalande narrated.

The Centre for Multiparty Democracy – Malawi (CMD-M), a membership organisation principally for political parties represented in the National Assembly, acknowledges that voter apathy has steadily become a major issue of concern since the May 1994 founding democratic elections.

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CMD-M observes that while the worry about voter apathy largely pertained to by-elections while between May 1994 and June 1999, the trend has changed altogether following the November 2000 local government elections and the May 2004 general elections.

From a record of 93 percent voter turnout in the June 1999 general elections, voter turnout tumbled to 59 percent in May 2004.

The voter turnout for the 2000 local government elections was as low as 14 percent.

“These recent trends are a cause of concern because voter turnout is one of the telling indicators of the democratic robustness of a country as it reflects the work of several processes that have occurred over a long period of time and at different levels of society,” findings of a study CMD-M commissioned in 2006 show.

The study sought to systematically investigate the factors behind the increasing trends in voter apathy since the 2000 local government elections; and to propose remedial measures that would reverse the current worrisome trends in voter apathy in close consultation with the relevant stakeholders in the electoral process.

Among others, the findings of this study showed that the sharp decline in voter turnout could be attributed to the role of Mec in electoral management and administration.

The other reasons for the apathy were said to be failure of successful candidates to deliver, intra-party politics and the electoral legal framework.

CMD-M recommends that there should be deliberate and concerted efforts to steadfastly defend, maintain and support the integrity of the electoral management body, especially in terms of its composition, mandate, scope of powers and budget.

“There is a need to support stakeholder involvement and provide constant training to political parties and civil society groups on electoral law and management issues, including the role of civil society in civic and voter education and election observation. There is a need to support a sustainable approach to electoral administration through capacity programs and career paths, permanent structures, long-term planning horizon, affordable and credible processes,” it added.

Voter apathy is not an exclusive electoral problem to Malawi. In the United Kingdom (UK), for instance, a large chunk of registered voters choose not to vote and a number of reasons have been cited as major contributing factors.

A study done by Racounteur shows that the first reason why people do not vote is that they just are not interested.

It states that since the 1992 general election – when 77.7 per cent of the population voted–voter turnout has decreased and remained low. This decrease coincides with the rise of the internet.

“Nowadays, more and more people consume information through ‘social media echo chambers’, rather than reading daily newspaper headlines or tuning in to the 10 o’clock news.”

The second reason, according to Racounteur, is that many people who do not vote believe they don’t understand enough about the government, the election process or individual party policies,” it said.

This is largely due to the British education system, which does not equip students with relevant political knowledge.

Without the right political education, young people do not feel able to engage with politics, a fact which has previously impacted young voter turnout as only 39 per cent of those under 24 years old planned to vote in 2017, compared to 68 per cent of those aged 55-64.

Still, many people who do not vote are nonetheless interested in politics and even support a political party, but would not cast their ballots because they feel their vote would be wasted.

In countries with compulsory elections, voter apathy may manifest itself in the form of a high proportion of spoilt ballots or donkey votes.

Malawi is not a compulsory election country. However, the number of registered voters casting their ballots has continued to drop steadily, with null and void votes also on the rise.

So, what could be the main cause for these problems? Alhaj Rashid, one of the Area Civic Education Coordinators (ACECs) under Nice Trust in Nkhotakota, faults some politicians for allegedly delivering messages designed to deceive registered voters on the purpose of the June 23 fresh presidential election.

“We had some politicians telling registered voters that the purpose of the election was merely to change the Vice President and not the President. Such messages demoralized some voters because they felt that their vote would change anything,” Rashid said.

Nice Regional Civic Education Officer (Centre), Enock Chinkhuntha, challenge that, unless politicians start honoring their campaign promises, Malawi will continue having a problem of voter apathy.

Chinkhuntha observed that failure by candidates to keep their campaign promises is another contributing factor to voter apathy in Malawi as voters feel betrayed and deceived.

“You have seen candidates often moving out of rural areas to urban areas upon election and rarely visit their constituents to consult on issues to be tabled in parliament. This demoralizes the voters,” he said.

“Hence, no matter how much civil society organizations can collaborate in mobilizing people to vote, the status quo will remain if our politicians continue to be deceitful. As Nice, we believe we did a very good job in mobilizing people to cast their ballots. Whatever challenge that might be there, they could be beyond our control,” he explained.

Chinkhuntha adds that the scare of contracting coronavirus disease (Covid-19) could be another reason for the low turnout in the fresh presidential election.

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