Last year, I attended a meeting of the ward assembly in one of the constituencies in Nairobi city. Apart from the elected leaders, there were local residents who had come to listen to what was on the agenda including the building of a proposed Sh6million (US$60,000) health dispensary.
The money was just enough to build the health facility but would not have been adequate to equip it, provide staff or even medicines.
My attention was caught by a sprightly elderly woman who followed the discussions keenly. When given the chance to speak, she suggested that instead of spending the money on building a clinic, it was better to grade and repair an access road that led to the village where the health centre was to be located.
She argued that fixing the road would enable the villagers to access other health facilities within the ward which were already equipped, had at least two or three skilled health workers and a functioning pharmacy.
Other residents who were at the meeting chimed in to make their case that it was better to build the access road than to put up a health centre which would not be functional until the ward was allocated more funds to staff and equip. Their suggestion carried the day and the road has now been graded to make it easier and faster for the villagers to access health and other services.
The elderly woman got an opportunity to speak and to be heard. She and the others understood their responsibilities as voters and wanted the elected leaders to heed their concerns. As voters, they realised they could influence whether or not they will be able to access clean water, health services or education for their children. In this case, they were not advocating for themselves and their families but for their neighbours and community.
Registered voters like these are more likely to have the confidence to talk to elected officials and to be active and engaged citizens. They not only have the satisfaction of knowing they have expressed their opinions but also get a sense of personal empowerment by voicing issues of concerns to themselves, their family and their community.
The old woman did not think that her individual vote did not matter in the larger scheme of things. She did not think that she could not make a difference. She may or may not have considered that the candidates presented were not worth her vote but she went ahead and made her choice.
Refusing to register and participating in elections means ceding to others your right to demand for medicines to be available in hospitals, for better schools for your children and for better security. After all, policemen are paid from your taxes! It is your money that the government – national or county – is spending or cutting. Registering to vote doesn’t mean you have to – it just means you can if you want to. After all, it is not compulsory for you to vote.
But voting should not be a burden either and that is why the Code for Kenya developed the GotToVote! platform to make it easier for citizens to identify their nearest voter registration centre. Optimised for easy mobile access, GotToVote! gives users information as to who is eligible to register and gives a list of documents (e.g. an Identity Card or Passport) that they are required to take with them when they go to register.
An estimated 70 percent of those above 18 and below 35 years (almost 10 million) who are unemployed are among those who should register as voters. They comprise a huge percentage of the estimated 8.3 million eligible voters the IEBC is targeting. It is they who can make a difference in whether they get jobs. But only if they register.
(Catherine Gicheru is an ICFJ Fellow and the Country Lead, Code for Kenya – firstname.lastname@example.org)