Topic Three

Lectures 8-10

Robert Buddan

February 10-17


The study of voting behaviour is premised on the idea that the social characteristics of voters explain the way they vote. The important characteristics are age, gender, race, class, education, location. These characteristics determine the circumstances of voters and define the issues that are most meaningful to them. These circumstances and issues orient them to vote for one party or another and thus determine how they vote on matters such as the state of the economy, issues of politics or social issues. Voters identify themselves with a party that in their perception, best represent those issues.

Voters help to shape a political system. While some perspectives show how governments and parties affect a society by their actions, studies of voting behaviour show how an electorate by its voting behaviour affects parties and governments. Voters force governments and parties to adjust their behaviour in order to win votes. Parties develop ideologies and governments pursue policies that seek to meet the needs of voters.

From this perspective, the entry of voters onto the political stage is a major defining event of a country’s politics. Under the old colonial order when voting was restricted to those of property, the political system reflected the interests of the propertied. However, two major breakthroughs occurred that changed the character of politics in the region.

First there was Universal Adult Suffrage won between 1944 and 1953. This meant that all citizens, 21 years or older, had the right to vote. The second was the lowering of the voting age from 21 years to 18 years in the 1970's. These events opened up the arena of voter participation in the English-speaking Caribbean to a considerable degree. Before adult suffrage the number of electors was very small. In the 1930's the number of electors was about 3% of the population in ten English-speaking Caribbean countries. It was about 5% in Jamaica, about 6% in Trinidad and 22% in the Bahamas.

After adult suffrage and the lowering of the voting age, the number of electors rose to about 50% of the population in each country. Of the 35 million people in the Caribbean about 17 million have become electors. Of these the younger voters have become especially important. The youth have brought their own agendas and style to Caribbean politics and further enlarged the electorate and since the 1970's the youth vote has been very important in determining which party wins elections.

Voting and Democracy.

Voting behaviour is strongly related to the state of democracy. The levels of voter participation is popularly taken as a key measure of democracy. High levels of voting suggests a participant political culture. It indicates faith in the electoral system, the choices offered by the parties and the feeling that voting makes a difference in the nature of government. Low levels of voting might indicate an apathetic political culture where the voter does not feel that he can make a difference or that parties and governments are not subject to the will of the voter.

However, levels of voting might be affected by electoral laws. In some European countries voting is compulsory and so voting levels might be as high as 90%. Studies show that without compulsory voting, levels of voter turnout would have been significantly lower in those countries. Also, in the US there is no system of government registration drives and so some voters who decide late to vote are not able to because they failed to register. Voting levels in the US are therefore lower than they are in Europe and the Caribbean. In making comparisons of voting levels therefore one must account for any differences in electoral laws.

Voting Behaviour in the Caribbean.

In the English-speaking Caribbean where electoral laws are similar there is a uniform trend of voter participation among all the countries. Voting levels started from a low to modest level in the first decade of adult suffrage. It steadily increased and peaked in the 1970's. Then it declined from the 1980's into the 1990's.

In 11 Anglo-Caribbean states the average electoral turnout over the past decades have been: 66% (1950's); 68% (1960's); 76% (1970's); 74% (1980's); 66% (mid-1990's). Jamaica’s voting turnout was the same as the group average in the 1950's and 1990's but higher than the average in the 1960's, 1970's, and 1980's. In fact, Jamaica sustained the highest levels of voting between the 1970's and the 1980's, a level of 82%. However, the overall picture is that all of the Caribbean countries have followed the same trend of a rise and decline in voting levels. Whereas seven of the 11 countries had levels of voting of over 70% in the 1980's only one (Belize) had in the 1990's.

This falling away of voting has given cause for alarm over the state of democracy in the region. In fact, new parties like the NDM in Jamaica have used this development to say that the higher levels of non-voting indicate a dissatisfaction with the established parties and the old style of politics. But even the NDM was not able to attract many voters to the electoral process.

What explains the trend.

  1. The youth vote. The lowering of the voting age in the 1970's had brought new numbers of voters onto the electoral stage throughout the region. That along with their greater levels of activism such as in the development of youth arms affiliated to the parties, their idealism and radical ideologies favouring mass political participation, explain the increase in voting levels in the elections in the 1970's and 1980's.

    At the same time the youth vote is volatile and very sensitive to economic pressures. Young voters are less educated and skilled and do not have established careers and so are more insecure. They are most sensitive to unemployment and the lack of opportunities for education and training. It is they who would be most supportive of policies providing jobs, training and education but also easily alienated by the absence of these. The alienation has become evident because of the structural adjustment policies of the 1980's and 1990's and the more conservative policies of these decades.

    Carl Stone points out the effect of the youth vote in Jamaican politics. The lowering of the voting age to 18 years brought an additional 30% to 40% of new voters into the electorate. The youth vote was very important in the large PNP victory in 1976 and in the socialist zeal that characterised the party in the 1970's. This in turn helped to drive older and more conservative voters to the JLP. The JLP also launched an initiative to recruit youths to its party (Young Jamaica) and the youth element of both parties figured in much of the political violence that followed up to the 1980 elections.

    The youth impacted on the PNP in certain ways in the 1970's. The government pursued large-scale social programmes targeted at the youth, mobilized young activists into participatory politics and recruited many into positions of community and party leadership. Jamaican politics came to reflect the youth factor much more than other Caribbean countries because Jamaica has a larger youth component in its population compared to all other Caribbean countries and one of the largest in the world. Jamaica therefore has a young electorate.

    Jamaican governments are under more pressure to provide jobs, education and training to this sector of the population or else face alienation or even violent protests. This occurred from the 1980's under structural adjustment. As early as 1982, Carl Stone’s polls showed that as many as 50% of those between 18 and 30 years supported neither the PNP nor JLP.

    This alienation is further explained by the fact that unlike older voters who grew up with the parties and developed a loyalty to them, the second generation of young voters had no such loyal attachment. The youth is therefore more likely to vote on the basis of issues than on traditional loyalty and for that reason are quicker to switch their votes from one party to the next. The youth were willing to switch quickly back the PNP in the 1980's under structural adjustment and sustain a high level of voting in that decade. However, economic problems and the more conservative positions of both parties have brought high levels of anti-political sentiments to Jamaican politics in the 1990's.

    This explanation establishes many things: why voting rose in the 1970's and declined after; why Jamaican politics is so much more volatile and prone to violence; why Jamaican politics has been more radical and ideological; why Jamaica had one of the highest levels of voter turnout in the radical period of the 1970's and one of apathy and anti-system protest in the more conservative 90's; why leading even up to the 1997 elections more older voters said they intended to vote compared to younger voters; why older voters make up a larger portion of the traditionally loyal voters of the established parties.

    It also explains that governments are not judged only on their economic performance. Manley’s PNP was popular in the 1970's because it captured the imagination of the youth even though an economic crisis had begun by 1976, and Seaga’s JLP lost the youth vote heavily in 1989 even though the party went into those elections with four years of growth, the benefit of which however, were not going to the youth.

    The youth vote shows the importance of intergenerational differences in voting behaviour. Older electors (30 years and over)vote more, and vote more out of loyalty to the parties, and are important to base of support for the parties and to electoral participation. Younger voters vote less and vote more because of issues and are more likely to swing their votes and so become important in determining which party wins an election.

  2. Community/regional patterns.

    Voting behaviour is determined by one’s location. One’s community or region might have a strong tradition of support for a party and he becomes socialized into that tradition through family and peers. One reason is that parties and their union affiliates might have first established themselves among sugar, rice or banana workers and so their strength is based on the social and demographic profile of persons in those areas. The People’s Progressive Party in Guyana has its strength among the rural Guyanese in the sugar and rice growing areas. This, in turn, overlaps with race because historically East Indians have worked longest in these areas. The People’s National Congress gets its support from the more urban, Afro-Guyanese.

    Location overlaps with other social characteristics. The rural population tends to be less skilled and less educated in contrast to the urban voters. So, there are differences between PPP and PNC voters based on location, race, and levels of education.

    In Trinidad too, the tradition has been for the People’s National Movement (founded by Eric Williams) to have more support from non-agricultural or urban regions. The United National Congress (formerly the United Labour Front) of Basdeo Panday gets more support from agricultural workers which his party was very instrumental in organising in the early days. Again, there is an overlap with other characteristics. Agricultural workers are mainly rural East Indians of lower education compared to supporters of the PNM.

    The association between race and community voting is shown by a study of voting behaviour in the 1976 general elections in Trinidad and Tobago. The dominance of the PNM over the years could be explained by the fact that of the country’s 36 constituencies, 19 had Afro-Trinidadians making up 50% or more of the voters, 13 had Indo-Trinidadians in the majority and four had mixed-race populations. In 1992, for instance the United Labour Congress (UNC) won all the rural East Indian constituencies.

    Where people vote along racial lines as they tend to do in Trinidad, the party with a racial majority in more than half of the constituencies has a clear advantage. Because these constituencies are geographically concentrated in rural and urban regions there is also a geographical split in the vote and this reinforces the sense of two societies coexisting tensely under one government. This gives rise to calls or sentiments favouring secession into two nations during periods when racial tensions are high.

    In Jamaica, community and regional patterns of voting also exist. It is not based on race but on community loyalty to a party. For many years, the Jamaica Labour Party had been stronger in rural areas, especially in the traditional sugar and banana parishes (St. Thomas, Clarendon, St. Catherine) where BITU organisation had provided support among the agro-proletariat. The PNP had been stronger in Kingston and St. Andrew, capital cities, main towns and generally, the more urban areas. The lesser significance of sugar and banana workers now mean that there is no safe JLP parish. In the last two elections, the PNP won the vote in all parishes.

    Except for 1980, the PNP has always won the majority of votes and seats in Kingston and St. Andrew. It was this that drove Mr. Seaga to carve out a garrison constituency in West Kingston to ensure continued re-election. This started the garrison phenomenon. But with its natural urban working class support, housing and social policies it was easy for the PNP to respond and outdo the JLP with its garrison constituencies.

    Garrison constituencies and garrison communities within constituencies, have become the prototype of community-based voting. There are between 11 and 13 garrison constituencies. Party loyalty is strictly enforced by area dons. But constituents born into these communities are highly socialised into the pattern of party loyalty. The natural tendency to support a party along with the zeal of these supporters often lead to over-voting and other abuses to the electoral system. Violent forms of tribalism between garrison communities is typical.

  3. Race, ethnicity and class.

    Race and ethnicity are the main contributors to party preferences in Guyana and Trinidad while class is more important in Jamaica. Greene’s study of voting in Guyana up to 1968 found two things. In the 1953 elections class was the main bases of political support. The Indo-And Afro-Guyanese working class together supported the PPP, including 92% of East Indians and as much as 80% of Afro-Guyanese. However, after this the PPP split into two parties where the Afro-Guyanese element formed the PNC under Forbes Burnham. Between 1957 and 1961 a racial pattern of voting emerged. In the 1997 elections there was a high association between race and vote. It remains true therefore that race is the most important factor in determining voting behaviour in Guyana.

    In the 1997 elections, the proportion of East Indians in the population closely matched the proportion of votes that the PPP received; and the Afro-Guyanese vote for the PNC also roughly matched its proportion in the population.

    In the case of Trinidad, about 56% of the population is Black or mixed and 40% is East Indian. The dominant party since 1956 has been the PNM which has relied on the black and coloured vote. The East Indian party was formed in the 1950's by Indian businessmen. It was supported by East Indian sugar workers and Hindu religious organisations.

    However, especially from the 1960's the East Indian movement was split between Muslims who were more likely to support the PNM against the Hindu party; and so too were Christianized Indians and the more educated and urbanised (creolised) East Indians. This further strengthened the PNM so that race voting was not as strict as in Guyana. The ethnic split between Hindus and Muslims kept the Indo-Trinidadian community politically weak.

    The PNM’s dominance ended in the mid-1980's however with the death of Eric Williams, an economic crisis and a backlash against the policies of patronage which had been used to maintain the PNM’s support. A Black dominated coalition with East Indians formed the new government and when that coalition broke up, the PNM returned but an East Indian dominated party was able to win power in 1995 with a coalition.

    Trinidadian voters are influenced by their demands on their government and how they perceive the government is responding. Many races expect the government to look after them; government’s respond that they cannot provide benefits on the basis of race; but voters still perceive that they do to the disadvantage of ‘their’ race.

    Also, where racial voting is strong, a dominant race keeps its party in power and there is less alternation between parties in government. This has been an important difference between Jamaica where racial voting is less important and where there has been more regular alternation of party governments.

    In Jamaica, voting is determined by class more than by race. Although both main parties draw their support from all classes some classes tend to support one party more. The early JLP combined its working class support with that of big business antagonistic to the PNP’s socialism. The drift of the business class to the JLP became more pronounced after the radical period of the 1970's when it became identified as a conservative pro-business party.

    The early PNP drew its support from the nationalist middle class, the intelligentsia, and the working class. Its working class base increased during the radical 1970's.

    Class voting also overlaps with race. The JLP is supported more by the racial minorities who comprise the business class. The PNP is supported by Black Jamaicans.

  4. Issues.

    A number of issues motivate voters. However, the attraction to many issues depends on the voter’s social characteristics and location. For instance, the issue of unemployment is of more direct importance to the less skilled and the younger voters. The attitude to patronage depends on whether one’s social group is a beneficiary or not. The attitude to crime depends on whether one lives in a high-crime area.

    Some political scientists distinguish between the materialist and post-materialist values of voters to explain why some issues are more important to certain kinds of voters. Material issues are those to do with meeting the everyday material conditions of life - job, income, shelter, food/prices. These issues have more salience for the poorer classes and younger voters.

    Post-material values are the less tangible, less physical values like justice, human rights, democracy, equity or the principles by which society is supposed to live by. Those voters who have already satisfied their material values shift their agenda of issues to these post-material ones. The more educated, higher income voters are more likely to take up these issues.

    The different predispositions of voters towards issues therefore make some issues appear to be middle-class issues and others to be ‘bread and butter’ ones. For instance, the problems of the ‘street people’ in Jamaica is seen more in terms of justice and less in terms of poverty by the middle class who have taken up this issue. The controversy over the telecommunications agreement with Cable and Wireless seems to have less meaning for poorer people caught up in the daily struggle of life. Constitutional reform is another issue that poorer people seem less interested in.

    Voters who are materially poor and socially or racially alienated from those who have power are more responsive to issues like police brutality, political victimization, basic hospital care, water supply, jobs, job security and pay increases, personal security in crime-ridden neighbourhoods.

    Often the more materially dispossessed classes/races are less interested in means and more so in ends as compared to the post-materialist voters. For instance, they might support patronage and demand that their politicians deliver material benefits in exchange for the vote. They might support garrison constituencies in order to make their community safe for the party that they expect to obtain benefits from. They might vote for politicians of their own race in order to ensure that their race is looked after. Or they might participate in electoral abuse to make sure that their party wins an election.

    For voters who are less dependent on patronage they would be interested in ending the system of patronage politics as politically motivated use of resources. They are more likely to see the police as forces of law and order than as agents of brutality. They might see the need to end garrison constituencies and electoral abuse. It is the middle class therefore that takes up issues of constitutional and electoral reform. In this sense, the issues related to poverty are those of the poorer classes and the issues related to democracy are those more of the middle class. Political parties draw their support mainly from these two classes and their character and programmes often show the tensions and contradictions in attempting to serve sometimes conflicting objectives at the same time.


Voting behaviour is complex because people vote, usually for a complex set of reasons. Most Caribbean political parties appeal to voters as multiracial and multi-class parties in order to obtain mass support. These parties are sometimes said to use ‘catch-all’ strategies to get support from as many voters as possible to accumulate votes in enough constituencies to win elections. These parties, however, usually identify more with some sets of voters as against others.

The main patterns of voting that influence the political systems of the region seem to be age/generation, race/ethnicity/class, issues and loyalty. The loyal voter might or might not base his support on class, race or generation. The emotional basis of these motivations suggest that electors are not rational voters but moved to vote by their passions.

Political Parties and Party Competition ./Elections and Electoral Systems/Human Rights and Human Development/ Good Governance/Modernizing Democracy/Government and Economy/Global Caribbean