The concepts of voter and civic education have been used interchangeably in Malawi although they are not exactly the same. Civic education is a wider concept that deals with general public awareness about issues pertaining to democracy and its consolidation. These issues include the role of political parties in elections, role of citizens in democratisation, function of traditional leaders, role of religious institutions as well as the media and interest groups.
Civic education aims at providing the right information to people so that it empowers them to participate meaningfully in democratic processes. It also empowers them with knowledge and skills on how they can meaningfully engage with political institutions such as Parliament and other governance institutions. It is an ongoing process while voter education is periodic.
While civic education aims at influencing the mindset, voter education only serves to make the voters know and understand the voting procedures on the voting day. While the key messages and themes in civic education remain largely unchanged over time, messages of voter education will vary according to the procedures that have been developed for a particular election.
Voter education is a subset of the general civic education and is aimed at providing specific information about how voting is to be conducted. It deals with the specific steps to be followed when voting in an election. Thus, voter education is targeted at registered voters so that they have the right information on how they will vote so that their vote is not lost by being declared null and void. In other words, civic education is targeted at the general population while voter education is mainly aimed at registered voters.
Whose task is it to conduct civic education?
Civic education is the responsibility of many institutions, including local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs), religious institutions, political parties, interest groups, community-based organisations, government and institutions that run elections such as the Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC). However, the common practice is that MEC has largely been relegated to conducting voter education while CSOs have taken the lead in the provision of general civic education. MEC and civil society organisations (CSOs) complement each other in the delivery of civic and voter education. Whereas CSOs might have their own materials for delivering civic education, they are guided by the civic education package that MEC develops in consultation with the same CSOs.
On voter education, only materials approved by MEC are used. This ensures uniformity so that all the people throughout the country have the same message.
Political parties have a big but oftentimes unrecognised role in providing both voter and civic education. Political party supporters make up the majority of voters and these party supporters look up to their parties for information on the whole electoral process. In addition to campaigning for votes, political parties are also expected to carry out non-partisan voter and civic education campaigns. But if truth be told, parties have miserably failed in this role because they are mostly concerned with imparting partisan messages that will make them win the elections.