Saturday, 8 November 2008

Does Voter Turnout Tell Anything About the State of Democracy?

The higher the voter turnout, the healthier is the democracy. This is a common assumption. 

Photo Credit: Ian Britton

This is not always true. The Soviet dictator, Stalin always got 99,9% votes. In Soviet practice less than 50% voter turnout meant that elections were not valid and thus in Stalin’s single-candidate elections 99% turnout was reported. 

The reportedly 64,1% (on 7.11.2008) is said to be the 100 year highest ‘record’ turnout in the US presidential elections of 2008.

How Does US Voter Turnout Compare with Other Countries?

  • In the Iraqi elections of 2005, there was 71% voter turnout
  • in the Russian presidential elections of 2008 it was 68% 
  • in the UK parliamentary elections of 2005, 61,3% turnout
  • in the EU elections of 2004 the turnout was 45,5% (lowest at 7% in some areas). 
  • In the Iranian Majlis or Parliamentary elections of 2008, the Ministry of Interior figure claims voter turnout to be 52% from Iran’s 49 million eligible voters. 2,200 candidates were, however, barred from running on the grounds that they were not sufficiently loyal to the Iranian revolutionTurnout in the second round of Iranian elections was only 25% and winning candidates got only 25% of electoral support.

In the US, 52,6% of voters supported the democrat candidate Barack Obama and the whole world has applauded his election. Russian President Medvedev won the 2008 elections with 71,25% of electoral support. EU member countries Germany, France and Britain claimed that these elections did not meet their criteria for democratic elections, but along with EU promptly congratulated the winner President Medvedev.

  • In Iraq, the winning party with 42 women got 48,1% of electoral support though very few people would consider Iraq to be a safe and functional democracy. 
  • In the UK 2005 elections, only 21% of the electorate actually supported the winning party candidate Tony Blair.

Statistics can be utterly misleading if we are to draw any conclusion on the state of democracy in any elections.

What About Enforced Compulsory Voting in Democracies?

Should the US consider enforced compulsory voting, like in Australia or Malta where they have 95% turnout?

There are currently 32 countries with compulsory voting. Of these, 19 countries like Australia, Lichtenstein, Belgium and Singapore enforce it. Of the 30 member states of the OECD ten have some kind of compulsory voting.

The main argument in favour of compulsory voting is that it then represents the will of the majority and not only those who vote. Further, it can eliminate malpractices in providing or hindering access to vote. Thirdly, it forces people to think about controversial issues and take a stand.

The main argument against compulsory voting is that voting is a civil right like free speech and not a civic duty like paying taxes. There are also religious strictures against involvement in politics as those among Jehovah’s Witnesses, which would make compulsory voting oppressive.

Does Low Literacy Mean Low Voter Turnout?

Another fallacy is that literacy corresponds with high levels of voter participation through ballots. 

A low literacy does not necessarily mean a country's turnout rate will be low. There is no significant statistical correlation between literacy and voter turnout. 
  • Low literacy countries such as Angola and Ethiopia have achieved high turnout rates.

Some people, when trying to explain situations in Western democracies or EU elections, interpret that low voter turnout is actually a sign that things are going smoothly. Others warn that voter apathy means, on the contrary that voters show their mistrust and fatigue by not bothering to vote.

Funny Incidents from the 2008 US Presidential Elections

  • A judge in Ohio ruled that homeless people could use a park bench as their address in order to register.

  • A voter couple flew home from India just to cast their ballots.

  • NASA astronauts on board the International Space Station sent a video message encouraging people to vote as they did, from 200 miles up.

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