Throughout history, countries where citizens have stopped participating in the political process have generally met unfavorable ends. Dambisa Moyo writes why voter participation is crucial for a democracy.
The US midterm elections this November will tell us where American voters want their country to go. Will they endorse US President Donald Trump’s “America First” vision, or will they reject his brand of anti-globalist illiberalism by handing one or both houses of Congress to the Democrats?
This question admits of no easy answer, because if the history of past midterm elections is any guide, two-thirds of eligible voters won’t even bother to show up. In the last US midterm election, in 2014, turnout plumbed a 72-year low. Two years before Mr Trump was elected with three million fewer votes than his opponent, a mere 92.3 million Americans cast ballots. Such low turnout, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders lamented at the time, “was an international disgrace.”
In general, US voter turnout consistently falls below that of most other developed countries. For the past two decades, the average US voter-participation rate in both midterm and presidential elections has hovered just above 50 percent, down from more than 60 percent throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Crucially, only some 30 percent of households with an annual income below $30,000 have bothered to vote in recent years.
As a result of Americans’ diminished political engagement and lost confidence in the democratic process, the Economist Intelligence Unit recently downgraded the US from a “full” to a “flawed” democracy.
Low election turnout bears directly on public policy, by encouraging politicians to cater to the interests of reliable voter cohorts, rather than to a broader cross-section of the entire population. But policies that are narrowly targeted to the interests of the few tend to deepen social divisions and undercut economic dynamism. Moreover, widespread apathy about the democratic process can put the political system itself at risk. When only a small share of the population votes, the resulting government will lack credibility.
This is not mere speculation. History is rife with sobering examples of what can happen when a citizenry disengages. In Poland in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, falling participation among the enfranchised aristocracy allowed a narrow segment of powerful nobles to seize control of the country’s political processes. Over time, the country’s institutions were hollowed out, and this sapping of national strength is thought to have contributed to Poland’s dismemberment at the end of the eighteenth century. In 1795, Poland essentially ceased to exist when it was partitioned between Austria, Prussia, and Russia.
By contrast, in the nineteenth century, Britain managed to broaden its electoral base in response to rampant corruption in its “rotten boroughs.” Before the Reform Act of 1832, some electoral districts (boroughs) were so small that a single family – or even an individual – could choose a Member of Parliament. But through wider enfranchisement and thus an expansion of the electorate, Britain strengthened voter participation among its growing middle classes, and probably staved off the kind of revolutions that roiled Europe during the subsequent century.
There are many ways to boost voter turnout, but not all of them will appeal to the large segment of Americans who hate being told what to do. Nonetheless, if America’s democracy is to survive and function, its citizenry must be reincorporated into the political process.
To that end, one obvious solution is mandatory voting, which is currently enforced in 26 countries around the world. In 1893, Belgium became the first country in the modern era to adopt compulsory voting, after politicians hoping to empower the working classes pushed through a parliamentary act imposing fines – and sometimes disenfranchisement – on all those who failed to turn out for elections.
Australia followed suit in 1924 with an amendment to its Commonwealth Electoral Act. Between 1919 and 1922, Australia’s voter turnout had fallen from over 70 percent to under 60 percent. With the new legislation in place, it rose to 91 percent in 1925. And almost a century later, the country’s voter-participation rate still ranks above that of most other developed countries.
There will always be sceptics who insist that freedom from the prying eyes of the government is all that matters, and that people should be able to opt out of the electoral process if it suits them to do so. But the future of democracy might well depend on whether we are willing to put tomorrow’s freedoms ahead of today’s right to disengage. copyright Project Syndicate
Dambisa Moyo is a global economist and author of four New York Times bestselling books. Her latest book, ‘Edge of Chaos: Why Democracy is Failing to Create Economic Growth and How to Fix It’, was published in April 2018.