Wednesday, 4 January 2012

A Chilean dilemma: compulsory or voluntary vote?

By Carlos Fortin

In the midst of the Chilean political and social turmoil that I have reported on in my last two blog posts, the Chilean Congress has passed legislation introducing a major change in the country's electoral system. It did this in the hope that it may help reverse the growing alienation of the population vis-à-vis the political process. It is however very far from clear that it will do so.

Until now Chile had had a system of voluntary registration and compulsory voting for those registered.  Registration is now automatic; all Chilean citizens are added to the electoral registry on turning 18. Voting, however, becomes voluntary.

The issue was intensely debated not only in Congress but in academia and the media. Those in favour of the change argued, to start with, from first principles: voting is a right, and forcing people to exercise it is a violation of their freedom. They then contended that the change will both result in a much enlarged potential electorate (in effect, the number of potential voters will increase from about 8 million to about 12 million); while those taking part in the political process will be a much more committed section of the population, as they will do so voluntarily. Legitimacy will thus increase also.

Those against the change, among whom I count myself, countered that voting is not only a right but also a civic obligation, comparable to jury duty, which nobody could  claim is a violation of individual freedom. As for legitimacy, any reduction in the level of actual voting will diminish it, no matter how committed are those who bother to vote, since the rest will have no incentive to find out about the issues and involve themselves in the democratic process.

At the theoretical level the argument is far from settled and, given its almost philosophical nature, it is unlikely to be in the foreseeable future (a good summary of the issues can be found in Emily Keaney and Ben Rogers, A Citizen's Duty. Voter Inequality and the Case for Compulsory Turnout*. But at the level of the concrete consequences of the change for political participation there is some empirical evidence that is highly relevant.

The Netherlands changed from compulsory to voluntary voting in 1970, and a sample survey study compared the levels and kinds of participation in the last election with compulsory voting (1967) and in the first election with voluntary voting (1970)**.

The results:
  1. Total turnout went down from 94.6% to 74.1%
  2. Youth turnout (21 to 29) fell considerably more than that of other age groups (from 93.5% a 61.4%, while that of other age groups went down from 94.8% to 77.6%)
  3. Voting among those with only primary education went down from 94% to 69.2% among voters with higher education the drop was from 96.7% to 87%
  4. The turnout of lower income groups fell from 93.6% to 73.1%; that of the higher income groups from 98.4% to 84.1%
  5. Male voting went down from 95.3% to 76.7%; female voting from 93.8% to 71.1%.
The change, at least in the short run, had therefore a regressive impact not only in terms of total participation, but also in the composition of the electorate, resulting in a reduced presence in the political process of the young, the poorer, the less educated, and women.

Not exactly, I would have thought, what Chilean democracy needs today.

*Keaney, E. and Rogers, E. (2006) A Citizen's Duty. Voter Inequality and the Case for Compulsory Turnout, London: Institute for Public Policy Research
**Irwin, G. (1974) ‘Compulsory Voting Legislation. Impact on Voter Turnout in the Netherlands’, Comparative Political Studies 7. 3: 212-315.