Democracy in Decline?

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An Online Exclusive from the Fall 2012 Democracy Issue

By Michael Zelenko

In May and June 2012, Greece held elections that promised to radically resculpt the European landscape. Britain’s Guardian called the ballot the “most important election for decades.” Business Insider labeled it “the most anticipated Greek election in history.” Yet despite the gravitas attributed to the decision, just under 63 percent of voters cast a ballot. In the birthplace of democracy, for one of the most important elections in that nation’s history, voter turnout was the lowest it has been in at least 70 years.

In his essay “Viva Democracy!” in the summer 2012 issue of World Policy Journal, author and veteran correspondent for Le Monde Patrice de Beer laments: “Too many potential voters take Democracy for granted, treating it like a habit that has hung around for ages.” Indeed, statistics show that the last 60 years have witnessed a worldwide decline in voter turnout.

In Portugal, the 2011 elections saw just 59 percent and 46.5 percent of eligible voters head to the polls for, respectively, parliamentary and presidential elections—by far the lowest turnout since the founding of the third republic in 1974. In Morocco, only 45 percent of the population came out to vote in the parliamentary elections of 2011—significantly down from a high of 85 percent in 1970. In Paraguay, voter participation in parliamentary and presidential elections has dropped nearly 25 percent in the last 40 years. Even in new democracies, voter participation has fallen, as in Serbia, where turnout in the presidential election plunged 22 percent from 2008 to 2012. In the United States, voter turnout for congressional elections has dropped by roughly 30 percent in the last half century.

Regional patterns also paint a pessimistic picture. Western Europe has seen a decline from the mid-80s to the high 70s since 1941. North America’s average turnout has fallen from the mid-70s to the mid-60s.The Middle East has seen voter turnout fall from almost 90 percent to the mid-60s in the last half century. Even the Arab Spring—that resounding call for democracy—evoked lackluster participation. The recent presidential election in Egypt saw a 51 percent voter turnout.

So how do we reconcile these numbers with the international march—and apparent success—of democracy in South America, Eastern Europe, and Africa in the last half century? Voter turnout, at least in the developed world, is the result of four factors, says Andrew Ellis, the director for the Asia-Pacific region for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). The first is access to voting—availability of polling stations, work or rest day voting, and alternate voting practices such as e-voting or vote by mail. The second is political impact, or the effect voters feel their participation will have on the results of the election. The third hinges on the political and electoral structure of the government—a proportionate parliament versus a first past the post system that we see in countries like the United States—along with variables of compulsory voting, and voting age (with evidence suggesting a younger voting age actually leads to weaker voter turnout in the developed world). The last factor deals with demographic issues such as gender and youth balance within electorates.

With so many endlessly complicated factors at play, “voter turnout cannot be correlated with the level of democracy,” says Abdurashid Solikono, Program Officer of Electoral Processes at IDEA. “It is somewhat incorrect to assume that only democratic movements can be the cause of higher voter turnout. In order to see the impact of democratic movements on voter turnout, one has to control for all other variables that affect the level of voter turnout.” Beyond the factors outlined by Ellis, such variables as propaganda, population size, and campaign budgets can have substantial effects. The Central African Republic (61 percent turnout for the 2011 parliamentary elections) hardly boasts a healthier democracy than Switzerland (49 percent turnout for the 2011 parliamentary election).

Measuring a democracy solely by voter participation can be deceptive and yield false results. Low election turnouts can signal a lack of confidence in the electoral system—but may also signify apathy or satisfaction with the status quo. Meanwhile, strong voter turn out may hint at a vibrant democracy, but it could also indicate intense propaganda, authoritarian rule, and false reportsas seen in Turkmenistan, where voter turnout topped an unbelievable 96 percent for the 2012 presidential election.

All of which doesn’t mean high voter turnout doesn’t have a place in a healthy democracy. On the contrary, as a basic tenant of the system, free and fair elections should be supported even as a legitimate high voter turnout should be encouraged. Solikono cites a 2006 study titled “Explaining Voter Turnout” from a 2006 issue of the journal Electoral Studies identifying four factors that typically encourage higher voter turn—the type of electoral system, high campaign expenditures, concurrent elections (municipal and federal elections on the same day), and the elimination of restrictive registration procedures such as literacy tests and poll taxes.

Solikono also suggests five additional measures that can improve voter turnout:

  • Administering elections on non-working days or designating the election day a holiday.
  • Locating the voting stations in populated places and increasing their number.
  • Using optional e-voting or e-registration procedures.
  • Allowing and promoting voting from abroad.
  • Eliminating all other obstacles that make it difficult to vote.

Instituting compulsory voting is another option that can promote higher voter turn out. From Singapore (93 percent in the 2011 parliamentary election), to Australia (93 percent in the 2010 parliamentary election), to Turkey (87 percent in the 2011 parliamentary election), compulsory elections can yield higher voter turnout rates than non-compulsory electoral systems, but only when coupled with a strong enforcement system.  

Yet even with a long history of democracy, unrestricted voter rights and compulsory voting, some elections still don’t produce a strong turnout. Such was the case with the 2012 Greek elections. Andrew Ellis suggests yet another reason for the relatively poor voting rate: A segment of the population may have been grossly dissatisfied with either alternative. This certainly seems to be a possible explanation for the Greek results.

Does that mean democracy is dying in Greece, or Switzerland, or anywhere else? Certainly not. Democracy is a tangled, messy, sometimes disappointing, and unpredictable system—and all for the better. Even negative shifts in voter participation are likely to be symptoms of a dynamic society where voter participation vacillates as a result of demographic, political, and social reasons. That proportionately fewer people are voting today is eclipsed by the positive trend of more people voting for their leaders and representatives now than at any time in history. Meanwhile, taking simple steps like creating national voting holidays, consolidating election days, and eliminating stringent ID requirements can go a long way to restoring turnout, promoting vibrant democracies, and addressing fears of global democracy in decline.

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Michael Zelenko is a World Policy Journal editorial assistant.

[Photo courtesy of Htoo Tay Zar]

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