Voter turnouts must be studied carefully


On the 4th August 2010, Kenyans went to the ballot to determine the future of their country. Nationally, we had an impressive voter turnout of over 72%. Pundits had expected the turnout to be much less and in a manner that would have affected the results of the referendum. That was impressive for a country with an average turnout of 62.1%.

I got into some argument with some of my friends when I stated that voter turnouts of over 90% need to be investigated. In particular, I had Ainamoi constituency, which registered a surprising 99.77% turnout, in mind. The first response was by someone who had completely missed the point stating that another constituency in a ‘rival’ region had registered 100% turnout which was obviously false.

60 constituencies registered voter turnouts of over 80%. There were only four which registered over 90 % turnouts: Ainamoi (99.77%), Mogotio (91.01%), Buret (90.80%) and Marakwet East at 91.67%. Many constituencies in Central and Nyanza Provinces had voter turnouts above 85% .

The other serious responder, though lacking in civility and decorum, stated that Kenyans are not the sluggards we think they are sometimes and that we should aim for 100% turnout. Yet another said that the sentiments were idealistic.

In 2007, I recall that voter turnouts of over 85% were frowned upon when they came from some regions depending on who was making the comments. The reasoning was that it is such scenarios that point to electoral malpractices.Everyone, who was close to the elections in 2007 knows about the rampant ballot stuffing which, inter alia, made a mockery of the electoral process.

Put simply those turnouts need to be explained. While it is desirable that every registered voter should vote, it is also understood that 100% turnouts are not realistic. In places such as Australia and Belgium where voting is compulsory, they are able to garner turnouts of over 90% but never above 95%.

Why do people turnout to vote?

Political philosophy identifies the value of the vote as the main reason why people vote. People go to vote because they somewhat believe that their single vote can make a difference. Research has however indicated previously that people have unreasonable expectations on the value of their vote. Indeed, Riker and Odeshook (1968 ) found that the chances that any vote can affect the outcome of an election for a nationwide poll are virtually nil – even in a closely contested race.

That is why opinion polls of a representative sample of about 1,600 Kenyans can correctly predict the outcome of an election within a very thin margin of error. In other words, if the first 1,600 voters were a true random sample of Kenyans, then all the other people will be wasting their time because the election would have been determined by those 1,600 people. The rest of the voters beef up the numbers but really don’t make a difference in the outcome of the election. Now this I agree is idealistic.

The other factors that have been found to encourage people to go and vote are levels of literacy, wealth as indicated by the Gross Domestic Product and mobilization by parties, interest groups and candidates. Generally wealthier and more literate people tend to vote more. Further, the more mobilization that is conducted before polls can also heavily determine voter turnout.

Assuming all those factors are satisfied, that is, people believe that their vote will make a difference, they are literate and wealthy and have been mobilized enough, why do we still need to check higher voter turnouts?

The very major reason why most people fail to vote is apathy; some just couldn’t be bothered with elections. they may find that they either have ‘better‘ use of their time or that their vote doesn’t matter. Having excluded that factor by assuming that all people believe in the value of their vote, we focus on other reasons.

These reasons will be obvious ones.

First, there will undoubtedly be errors with the electoral register. The recently concluded referendum proved this fact. Despite a fresh registration exercise which even gave us a chance to later confirm our details and also with significant use of ICT, there were still many places most notably Embakasi where peoples names were missing from the register.

Secondly, life doesn’t stop because there is going to be an election or referendum. As a result, some people will die. people die every day whether they are registered voters or not. People also become sick. Some in a manner that precludes them from the voting. Others have work commitments including jobs that are related to the electoral process itself and hence can’t vote. Further, some people will have traveled. in any normal society, these things will have happened and will continue to happen. I’m yet to see any paper without an obituaries page to this day.

The reason why it is important to investigate these turnouts is that there must first be an exclusion of the possibility of irregularities and secondly, there is need for an understanding of voter behaviour.

In 2007, I was called up by a friend at 5am in the morning to go and vote. In return, I made several calls too. Arguably, the election was very important. On the date of the referendum, it was reported that in Kisumu groups of young men went around waking people up to go and vote. In our house, everyone was woken up well before 6am and we all left the house to go and vote in our respective polling stations too. Again, it was an important exercise.

Since the vote was important to most people, it must therefore explain the high voter turnouts in most parts of Kenya. But when turnouts go over the 90% there must be an explanation given for them.

That is why I agree with, Mr Kipchumba Murkomen, a law lecturer at Moi University who said that’ although IIEC had been given a thumbs-up in the running of the polls, there could have been irregularities in some areas‘. His Marakwet East constituency with a poor terrain recorded 91.67 per cent turn out . “It means nobody went on a trip. Few people died, were in hospital nor did not vote,” he added. “IIEC staff could have been intimidated in areas dominated by certain groups and marked ballot papers in favour of one group,” Mr Murkomen said.

In the event that it is actually true that Kenyans in all 60 constituencies that registered a turnout of over 80% considered the referendum more important than all other Kenyans then that will be alright. However, it is good to be sure because in the event that there were irregularities, 2012 will be no much better than 2007.

Once that is sorted, let’s then seek to understand why less than 30% of registered voters turned up in some areas.

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