Being one of the biggest problems in today’s society, abstention, a notorious election procedure in which an electorate does not go to the ballots on election day, is undermining the whole political system across democratic countries.
Portugal has the most prepared generation of all time. It reached the best indicators in education, health and quality of life in its history. It has never had so many people with secondary and higher education. Still, Portugal has one of the highest abstention rates in Europe. Since 1975, these rates keep expanding unstoppably, with an abstention rate, in the 2019 European elections, bigger than any Portugal has ever seen, as reported by “Pordata”. If in the first years of the democratic regime the participation rates were among the highest in Europe, in the past few years the situation has reversed and today we present substantially low values compared to other European countries. Portugal bears further resemblance to emergent democracies in the soviet bloc, than democracies in Western Europe.
It is estimated that between 1996 and 2016, there were a million less voters in the Presidential elections and between 1995 and 2015 half a million fewer in the Parliamentary ones. Also, between 1995 and 2015, the 3 main parties lost approximately 1,3 million voters.
Some questions arise from these facts, such as “Why don’t the Portuguese exercise their right to vote?”, “Should voting be mandatory?” or “Would electronic voting help decrease abstention?”. Therefore, we must understand which factors influence Portuguese participation, abstention, and which solutions would be effective in raising the participation rate, taking other examples throughout the world into account.
Abstention is a profoundly serious problem. The Portuguese democracy is at stake, as electors are progressively further away from politics and its agents. Populism is striking Europe and if it reaches Portugal it will be a large concern, as the country’s democracy is quite debilitated and it is at risk of being damaged.
It can be related to indifference and alienation of the voters and to a way of protest, but also to a decrease in the relevance of parties and syndicates, to the entry of young people in the voters’ group and their preference to discuss politics online, join public petitions and take part in protests, instead of showing their beliefs with their vote, and facing voting as a right rather than a civic duty.
Corruption and distrust in public institutions are among the many justifications of the alarming abstention rates as well. As a matter of fact, in 2018, Portugal was in 30th place in the Corruption Perceptions Index. If abstention is a way of protesting against corruption, it is gradually damaging democracy and undemocratic political systems are the perfect environment for the proliferation of corruption. That said, it is essential to break this vicious cycle.
A Portuguese group of political scientists, coordinated by the investigator João Cancela, concluded that rural areas are the ones where the participation rates are lower in the Legislative, Presidential and European elections. On the other hand, the opposite happens in the elections for the local authorities. Although, the lack of updates in the electoral roll can partially contribute to such inflated values in these areas.
It is high time for Portugal to rethink the way it addresses the electoral process. Portugal should analyze, discuss and adapt some of the successful measures applied around the world in order to invert this increasing tendency for the abstention. Otherwise, what should we expect from our democracy in the future?
Can compulsory voting be a solution?
Why do the Latin American nation shave such a high rate of voter turnout, compared to many European countries and, especially, Portugal?
The answer is simple, and has nothing to do with great empathy between population and politicians. In fact, in most of these countries, compulsory voting has been adopted as an effective measure to mitigate abstention. But how have these countries come to this point?
The common view on the matter is that voting is a civil right, but some parties argue that it is instead a civic duty, just like paying taxes or serving in the military. Despite being somehow linked to a threat to freedom, this measure was adopted by many Latin American countries. Compulsory voting requires registered voters to actually vote, otherwise they will face some sort of penalty.
This is a region of huge disparities that mainly arise from unequal income distribution and power imbalance. The people were (and still are) oppressed by the elites, who wanted to perpetuate and extend their power, but, being much more numerous, have been able to form powerful and diverse coalitions which threaten the power of the elites. In such a scenario, elites were obliged to concede some civil power and this explains the generalization of universal suffrage.
Compulsory voting is nothing more than an attempt carried out by both sides to conquer some kind of supremacy in the political game, once the referred sides perceived some potential in those who do not usually turnout in elections in these countries. Their main goal is to persuade this part of the population to vote on their ideas, so that they can succeed.
Despite not being exactly the goal of the political forces involved, compulsory voting brings some benefits to the democracy’s development process in these countries. In this regard, besides contributing to a more reliable representation of public opinion, as it covers the opinions of a wider range of population, compulsory voting forces politicians to adapt their speech to the (different) needs of more segments in societies. Its implementation undoubtedly represents a fair point when it comes to discuss ways of reducing abstention. This way, the legitimacy of those who govern is more evident, contributing to more stability in politics.
What about the Nordic Measures?
One of the reasons why abstention is so low in Nordic countries can be attributed to transparency. Denmark is tied for first in Transparency International’s corruption index, and the rest of the Nordic countries aren’t far behind. Finland and Sweden are tied for third, Norway is tied for fifth and Iceland is tied for 12th . Given these countries have low levels of political corruption and their government decisions are unambiguous, people feel more encouraged to vote. But still, this factor does not completely explain the low abstention rate:
“A striking feature of all three countries was the level of public commitment to monitoring and promoting voter turnout, seeking innovative ways to engage with younger voters and tracking voting patterns. This is borne out, for instance, in the number of multi-stakeholder initiatives dedicated to promoting youth turnout, with academics, government ministries, and municipalities joining forces (and budgets) to experiment with new ways of reaching young voters.”
— Celia Davies, an associate editor from Edinburgh, was awarded a Churchill Fellowship to research voter turnout in Denmark, Sweden and Iceland. Her objective was to generate policy recommendations for the UK, where voter turnout has been dropping for decades.
For instance, Denmark has a mock polling system in their schools. Their students go through these just as they would for the official ones, and see the outcome. This way, they get to experience how elections work and are incentivized to learn about the parties and their proposals. Sweden is adopting a similar programme as well.
Nordic countries also introduced other innovative ways to simplify the voting process, such as polling hubs in stations, online voting and automatic voting registration.
How can we overcome abstention?
After this analysis, we present some solutions that might help fighting this problem. Firstly, we should make voting registration easier. Either by enabling automatic registration or by making it possible for voters to register at the day of the election. Another possibility would be to allow people to vote at any poll in the country. Finally, the implementation of online voting could be explored. Therefore, reducing bureaucracy and making the voting process more flexible seem to be key factors.