Why voter apathy should concern us

Young men pull a handcart past an IEBC voting registration centre at Kibera Primary school in Nairobi County. [Elvis Ogina,Standard]

Voter apathy should concern us, it is a threat to democracy

Much has been said about the voter apathy that seems to be getting endemic in our country.

Those registering as new voters have been steadily decreasing.

In spite of many efforts, the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) missed its enhanced new voter registration target by a huge margin.

Likewise, registered voters who actually turn out to vote has also been on a serious decline.

Sadly, not many seem concerned about this unfortunate trend. We appear to have accepted it as a fait acompli – a reality that we must learn to live with.

Across the world, voter apathy has been viewed as a serious threat to democracy. Like in research, when very few people participate in elections, the instrument loses its validity, and the results cannot be generalised to the wider population.

The electorate, therefore, ends up feeling short-changed.

Voter apathy also denies the electorate credible leaders, because, where voter apathy is prevalent, good people are thrown into discommodity and stay away from presenting their candidature.

The political arena then becomes a free space for those with less desirable leadership traits, values, and practices.

What is worse is that prolonged voter apathy has been deemed by leading pundits as being extremely dangerous to the well-being of the nation.

When the will of the people appears to be consistently subverted by the powerful, eligible voters become less enthusiastic about exercising their rights through elections.

The consequence is disillusionment with the political process or politicians in general.

That is why some have compared voter apathy to political depression, where one feels helpless and unable to influence important events. And therein lies the greatest danger posed to any nation by voter apathy.

Because when people become disillusioned with electoral systems and outcomes, their next stop is never so predictable or desirable.

In a justice system, when people lose faith in the courts, they often resort to extrajudicial means to settle scores – mob justice, murder, or otherwise punishing the suspects.

Likewise, when people lose confidence in the electoral systems, they will resort to less than desirable methods to change leadership – insurrections, revolutions, coups, and general unrest.

For a nation with high numbers of unemployed youth, this threat is real.

For many years when Kenyans exercised their power of the vote, the country enjoyed relative stability in a volatile region.

Unfortunately, when we began to undermine the power of our ballot – such as through rigging, selection of sycophants and cronies at party primaries, and widespread and unpunished corruption in government – Kenyans have been inching closer to the edge of a precipice.

There is therefore an urgent need to restore the power of the vote. Studies have shown that improving voters’ individual sense of importance and ability to appoint their leaders is key. Several issues we may need to consider.

First is digitisation. For a nation that has developed and exported the M-Pesa to the world, surely we can develop and export M-Vote technology that puts the ballot in the hands of the voter through their mobile phones.

If M-Pesa is secure enough to transfer real cash, why would M-Vote not be made secure enough to carry the will of the people through a mobile electoral platform? This may drastically reduce the cost of our elections.

Second, parties must give us real leaders. Whereas multi-partyism was meant to bring healthy democratic competition into our politics and governance, it is sad to say, our parties are nothing but vehicles to take the monied into leadership positions.

Thus, whoever can meet the cost gets the keys to the vehicle. We need to enhance and enforce how parties are registered and managed, and especially how primaries are conducted.

But the elephant in the room is – tackling corruption. As long as citizens perceive that the men and women they elect only get into power to enrich themselves, no one will want to brave the morning chill and the afternoon heat to vote them in.