The recent European elections achieved electoral turnouts of just 34% in the UK. Across Europe, few countries performed much better. In Belgium, Luxembourg and Greece voting is compulsory, but even with these measures the Italians consistently turnout higher numbers than the Greek.

In Australia voting in all elections is also compulsory – with a fine for those who forget. This system ensures turnouts of around 95% at most elections. But last year’s American Presidential elections which, in notable contrast to the EU elections, so grasped the attention of the world still only managed to bring out 56.8% of the population.

So what are these numbers telling us? That despite fewer than 50 years passing since universal suffrage was achieved, we no longer care?

I would like to particularly make the point that we should pay attention to universal suffrage, not women’s suffrage, because although a monumental step forward, that which is labelled ‘women’s enfranchisement’ is only part of the picture. The Suffragettes have long been heroes of mine, but with black women in the US (for example) not being given the vote until the 15th Amendment was enforced in 1964, there is only some gratification the country can take in giving white women the vote in 1920 with the 19th Amendment.

Why is it that we can all appreciate the efforts of the Suffragettes in their painful and traumatic (and occasionally fatal) hunger strikes, yet not find the time to vote? How can Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech continue to resonate for individuals the world over… yet not drive them to the polling station?

These people were not campaigning for their democratic rights simply to make a point. They didn’t see the ability of citizens to have some say in their own governing as a ‘nice-to-have’. Something to put on the mantelpiece and look on with pride when we see riots in Iran and supportive green avatars all over Twitter.

In Saudi Arabia and Vatican City, women are still prohibited by law from the democratic process. In Bhutan each household has just one vote – and the societal conventions mean the decision is usually made by the male head of the household. In Lebanon women have to have proof of education to at least elementary level (something their male counterparts do not need) to be allowed to vote. In Brunai and the UAE no one has a right to vote, because there are no democratic elections.

I believe that the democratic responsibility of individuals, not just their rights, is a fundamental part of any democracy and forward thinking society. It is intriguing that the political ideology by which the majority of the world’s population judges the advancement of a nation seems to have such high levels of antipathy on an individual level.


4 responses to “Enfranchisement

  1. Interesting post… but is it better to force people to vote if they’re admittedly apathetic and don’t really know who or what they’re voting for? Maybe it’s best to leave it up to people who choose to engage with the political issues of the day and exercise their right to influence that. And while it may be compulsory to vote in Australia, this is only if you’re on the electoral roll – if you never register yourself, it’s unlikely you’ll be tracked down and forced to vote.

  2. I agree with Kitty-although I think of it as my responsibility to be an informed and engaged voter, and I’m annoyed by those who think that a) government doesn’t affect their lives or b) their vote doesn’t matter, I wouldn’t want those who don’t care to be forced to vote. I also think it’s important that informed adults are able to choose not to vote if that’s the way they want to voice their dissatisfaction with the system.

    I didn’t realize until last year, though, how often legal suffrage isn’t enough. There were so many reports during the US presidential election of communities [almost exclusively lower class and predominantly African-American] where misinformation was used to suppress legal votes. People were told that democrats would vote one day, republicans another. Or that if you had an outstanding parking citation, you could be arrested if you showed up to vote. In cases like these, legal suffrage didn’t translate to actual suffrage. Something to think about.

  3. Wow LadyAudley that is very interesting. I hadn’t heard about that.

  4. I recommend the Armchair Economist if you’re interested in the economics of voting (and lots of other similar stuff). Through a scarily convincing analysis, the author concludes that the only truly ‘democratic’ procedure for election is to annoint a dictator.

    Democracy is preferable – or is that just what we’re taught in the West to make the East look bad? – but ‘free politics’ is actually fundamentally flawed, whatever system the country chooses to install.

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