a curious Yankee in Europe's court

blog about living in Europe, and Italy

The Achilles’ heel of democracy

Posted on the March 19th, 2010

A troublesome question keeps cropping up related to democracies, old and new. It’s one that, it seems to me, could turn out to be the Achilles’ heel of this much lauded system of government. And that question is — how do you persuade most (if not all) of the voters to come out and vote when it’s time to do so?

It may or may not surprise you to learn that the highest average percentage of voter turnout globally during the past several decades has been 68% (see here). More recently, though, even that not very impressive statistic has been shrinking, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA):

Overall participation in competitive elections across the globe rose steadily between 1945 and 1990. Between 1945-1950 the number of voters turning out to vote at each election represented 61% of the voting age population (i.e. all citizens old enough to vote). That turnout figure rose to 62% in the 1950s, 65% in the 1960s, 67% in the 1970s, and 68% in the 1980s. But in the 1990s, with the influx of a host of competitive elections in newly democratising states, the average for elections held since 1990 has dipped back to 64%.

In the 2008 Presidential election in the U.S., for example, voter turnout was 64 percent. Turn that on its head and that means that 36 percent of eligible voters — 73 million people — did not bother to go vote. And they made this choice to not participate in the democratic process during a time of great crisis not only for their own country but for the entire world, and in an election that was an amazing historic moment for the country itself.

Interesting, don’t you think?

As many do, I find this trend of low voter turnout generally across the globe to be alarming. But I also think we need to confront it in an intelligent way. For me that means posing a direct question to the citizens of those many countries who choose not to vote — do you really want to have a democratic form of government? Seriously ask this question.

I’m not so naive as to think that high voter turnout is the solution to the world’s problems. An ignorant voter is more often a friend only to the worst of those seeking elective office. To march into the future, simply muttering to our dog or cat about public apathy on election days, while suffering under ever lamer, ever more corrupt governments, however, is not very smart either.

What brought this all to mind is the video below of an interesting interview today on France 24 exploring why 53 percent of the French didn’t vote in last week’s regional elections there.

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