One of the most disturbing aspects of democracy for committed democrats (like myself) is the low participation, at least in the official participation known as an election. Take, for example, the recent Scottish Parliamentary elections, where SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon claimed that “[t]he result of the election was emphatic…we won a clear and unequivocal mandate.”1 The SNP had won just less than half the seats and had attracted 44.1% of the votes cast from a voter turnout of 55.7%. Now this is considered a good turnout (the Westminster turnout is higher; 66.1% for the UK as a whole; 77.1% for Scotland) and the percentage voting for the winning party being 36.9% giving the Conservative and Unionist Party over 50% of the seats3. These are usually regarded as good turnouts.
A few observations can be made and I shall attend to only a few of those. In the Westminster election, you do not need very many voters to give a political party power. This does not seem at all democratic. The Holyrood system gives a better reflection of the wishes of the electorate, but still the political party in power has less than half of the votes of the entire franchise. I shall return to this issue of lack of legitimacy due to low support for both ruling party and representative democracy later. For now, the issue to look at is non-participation.
Without a survey of the non-participants (some of whom may actually turn out to be the most important non-participants as their views may suggest the way forward), I shall suggest at this time four reasons.
Firstly, the person is an Anarchist and will not vote as s/he perceives this is against his/her principles.
Secondly, the person is in a (usually religious) movement that forbids voting (either explicitly or implicitly).
Thirdly, the person is actually politically active in various movements, such as wildlife societies and considers that s/he is carrying out his/rights and duties towards society in an adequate manner.
Fourthly, discrimination. Just because one has the vote does not mean that one is regarded as a free and equal citizen by others and this may discourage one from voting.
2 statistics from http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7599
3 statistics from http://www.ukpolitical.info/Turnout45.html
Very interesting article. I am also fascinated by this question. The recent referendum in the Netherlands concerning whether or not agreements between the Dutch and the Ukrainians should proceed, was interesting. Only about 30% of the electorate voted but they had 60% in the NO camp. So if only 30 % voted, what does this actually say?
Thank you for your comment, Steph.
I can only guess. But this made me think of two further reasons for non-participation; was the issue too complicated for the ordinary citizen (if it was then there was a failure on the part of the authorities in explaining the issue) or could it be that was the type of issue that voters thought should be handled by the two types of specialists employed by the public, the civil servants and the people’s representatives?
Still on the issue of referenda and perhaps it was unfair of me to raise the idea of referenda, because you are actually only referring to general elections, right? Anyway, Brexit. What will happen on June 23? It is true that some think the question should be dealt with at a different level. People are so lazy. In South Africa everybody voted in 1994 (well over 90%, will need to check this) for Mandela’s ANC, and since then most people still vote ANC, even though the poorest of the poor have not had their poverty addressed. The ANC has lapsed into one of greed and corruption. Look at Zimbabwe. Look at the Republican Party in the US. Some vote for the Reps because it is their traditional family choice going back, so they stay with the same choice without thinking again about the political issues on the table. The question is: does democracy really work? But there is nothing else, right? As you suggest, maybe some people find these issues too complicated.
No, it was not unfair; I really had not considered referenda as I was on other concerns, but referenda do need to be considered. After the recent publication of Part Three, I realise I need to consider many things more deeply. It was only through setting down my thoughts that I found how much more development is required. I will be turning to other topics for the near future.
If people find the topics to complicated, then the authorities are failing to explain them clearly. Life is too short and most subjects are too complicated for non-specialists to grasp easily, but this should be realised and explanations should be clearer.
Steph mention the election in Netherland with only 30 % voted. I think, if people does not have any interrest in the subject and does not want to use time to find out what it is all about, they should not vote. Sometimes I think people should past a test to get the right to vote. That is, of course only a joke. But do you have any right to vote if you does not want to spent time on what you vote for. Here it is seen as a duty to vote, but I find it more a right than a duty. Man, it is difficult to use english for this. 🙂
Hi Gitte, thanks for your comment. But if they do not vote because they do not understand, then what does it actually say? Perhaps there should be a box to check that says ” I do not understand the issues, that is why I do not vote”. In one way I agree with you that perhaps passing a test before getting the right to vote is a good idea!
Gitte, it is both a right to vote. I do not see it as a duty, but would have everyone either vote or spoil their ballot paper in such a way as to find out why. There may be ways to improve the system.
Passing a test to vote does sound good in theory, but consider some of the states of the USA, who made literacy a test. They would check if a voter could both read and write. These states could then exclude black people from voting as they went through schools which did not teach this (and illiteracy is not bar to understanding the issues involved).
Michael and Gitte, I so badly want to share an article I just read in a South African paper. It is about democracy or the lack of it in Africa. It breaks my heart of course, as I was born there at the foot of Africa. Not that I am patriotic or nationalistic, you understand. Read the article if you have time…
I sure will read it later. Just now I am too tired 🙂 But thank you for mention me 🙂