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Every Vote Counts and Makes a Difference

Edgar Leonard is native Virgin Islander/political analyst currently residing abroad.
By Edgar Leonard

The campaign curtain for the hotly contested 07 November 2011 general election is quickly closing. And Virgin Islanders are blessed with the right, privilege, opportunity and convenience to do what millions across the globe yearn to do or is restricted from doing---voting in a free and fair election. Like freedom and education, voting is a right that was not always available to Virgin Islanders; it had to be fiercely fought for.

As such it is a right that Virgin Islanders need to cherish and exercise, for many of our brave, fearless, unselfish and freedom loving countrymen such as Anegadian Theodolph H. Faulkner and others risk their life, personal safety, and well-being to attain. Voting is critical and healthy for our representative democracy and impacts more than voting 13 members into the House of Assembly every four years; it impacts issues and how they are addressed. What is the benefit of voting?

In lieu of direct democracy and through representative democracy, voters elect representatives to promote their interest by influencing and shaping government and public policy. This process includes enacting and implementing governing laws, ordinances, and regulations, as well as collecting and managing revenues to provide public services. Voting influences who wins elections, who gets access, what areas (districts) and what level of services are delivered, the response for services, how appointments are made, who stands for election…….etc. It is the first step to effective governance. But too often voters, having cast their votes, relax and expect things to happen. And when things are not progressing as expected, they complain, blow off steam, get vex, and may wait for the next election to effect change.

Instead, voters should get directly engaged and hold politicians both responsible and accountable for their behaviour and performance. They should stay in constant communication with both district and at large representatives and demand periodic updates on the programs outlined in manifestos. Many citizens falsely believe that politicians have ultimate power over their lives. No. The reality is that citizens have the true power; it was not ceded by electing politicians to office. They were elected to look out for the interest of the electorate. Politicians power is a function of and limited to that ceded to them by the electorate. But to ensure that they address the people’s interest citizens must stay engaged.

Politicians are elected to office and granted authority (apparent power) incident to the position to manage and promote the interest of the people. Representative democracy is not a perfect system and without strong checks and balances power can easily be ceded from the people to politicians and special interest. Consequently, citizens have to get engaged to control the use of this power for the greater good. Uncontrolled power can lead to corruption, including politicians enriching themselves, families, and friends; promoting personal beliefs and philosophies, or using the office for personal gain. The electorate can control politicians by electing them, and not rewarding (re-electing) them for poor performance; did not earned a second term.

At this point in the discussion let me share a little secret just between you and me; well, it may have been a secret but now the cat is going to be out of the bag. But, seriously, one thing that deflates a politician’s ego more than not getting elected is not getting re-elected. Some may rationalized not getting elected by resorting to Aesop’s The Fox and Grapes fable: a fox declared that he didn’t care that he could not reach an attractive bunch of grapes because he imagined they were probably sour anyway. But, having taste the office with its power, status, perks…….etc., politicians the world over do not want to give up these benefits and try their utmost ( sometimes by any means) to stay in office as long as they can; and some may sometimes over stay their welcome and stay too long. The bottom line is that the electorate has the power to elect, throw out, or re-elect representatives.

But frustrated with the perceived lack of power, and control over politicians (incumbent or otherwise), many voters may decide to boycott and sit out an election in protest. But if you refuse to vote, then you let the motivated minority (intelligentsia, financial backers, elite...etc) decide for the vital many. Furthermore, by refusing to vote you give those who vote a proxy vote to vote for you. Moreover, by not voting, voters give up the opportunity to voice their opinion on shaping of government and policy. Those who vote get to select who forms the next government and set the agenda/direction for the next four years. Citizens may not lose the right to vote by not voting but the potential power and value of the vote is eroded.

Moreover, sitting out an election does not immune citizens from the impact of issues within the territory, i.e., rising crime, accessible and affordable health care, stagnated economy, modern transportation/infrastructure programmes, competitive world class education and training, and effective governance. Thus, if voters will be affected by these issues regardless if they vote or not, why not vote and contribute and partake in the solutions? It is not uncommon to hear citizens say that their vote does not matter, for enough people will vote to meet the intent of the election. And, secondly, politicians of all stripes will do how, why, when, where, and what they want anyway. But what if most voters share this view? The minority will be deciding for the vital majority, for our election is a plurality voting system, i.e., the candidate with the most votes win; there are no minimum required. Some jurisdictions require a candidate to garner a certain percentage of votes cast; normally at least 50 percent. Some politicians can attempt to get powerful but the power can be tempered by an engaged populace.

Every vote counts and can make a difference. For example in the 1995 general election, the District 8 seat was lost as reported by one (1) vote. Many voters who sat out this election could have changed the outcome if they had voted. Further, in the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, former President George W. Bush inched out former Vice-President Al Gore in the Florida election by less than a 1000 votes. True, the election was disputed but the U.S. Supreme Court declared Bush the winner. Nonetheless, similarly, the hundreds of thousands who sat out this election could have changed the course of history. Further, several other local elections have been decided by a handful of votes.

The BVI is at a crossroad. It has transformed itself from a “backwater” territory that depended on grant- in-aid to becoming self supporting. Today, with tourism and financial services as the pillars of its economy, it boasts as having a high quality of life and one of the highest per capita income and standard of living in the Caribbean region. But it needs to retool its economic base and its governing structure to maintain/sustain its current status. Consequently, this election is critical to putting the right team in place to plan the way forward. Be part of the process of shaping government and policy, be part of history---vote. Your vote counts; it has value; and it makes a difference.

Edgar Leonard is native Virgin Islander/political analyst currently residing abroad.

PS: Word just came from the Governor's office that the election will be have external monitors; let's show the world that we may be a microstate but we have integrity, follow the rule of law and can conduct a free and fair election.

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