On January 31st, 2012, Chile passed a law changing the vote from compulsory to voluntary, while at the same time expanding the register, allowing every citizen over the age of 18 to vote automatically, without the need to be registered. This contrasted with the previous mechanism, a registration system that was voluntary, but once citizens were inside they were forced to vote in every election, albeit under a weak threat of a pecuniary sanction.
It can be argued that voluntary voting represents a step in the right direction towards making a democratic system effectively more democratic. This is because a switch to voluntary voting ends the state’s supervision over the liberty of citizens who might feel they have the right to abstain from the political process. However, compulsory voting has helped fight low turnout rates, which in turn can threaten the legitimacy of elections and be a cause for concern about future problems within a democracy.
In the last compulsory municipal election held on 2008, 6,362,130 citizens showed up to express their preferences – including spoiled votes, understood as nulls and blank ballots – while four years later, in the same election, that total went down to 5,790,617 people. This constitutes a relatively low drop-off, but when the registration system also changed from 8,110,265 to include 13,404,084 citizens automatically registered, it becomes a situation that is important to monitor.
This becomes increasingly relevant when the problem also occurs at the national level, in a setting considered to be more important than local elections, at least in Chile. In the runoff presidential election of 2009, under compulsory voting, 6,958,972 citizens turned out to vote, while in the same election held four years later, only 5,697,524 people did so. This number is actually lower than the one from the 2012 municipal election, something that confirms a downwards trend for turnout in the country.
Going from a 78% turnout in a municipal election and from an 84% in a presidential election, to a little over 40% of participation in a consolidating democracy, is a matter of concern. While the institutional change exposed a big problem – the hidden abstention from people who decided not to register to vote in a compulsory system – the reform has not been a solution for that hidden dissatisfaction at all. Even though Chile has consistently improved in eradicating what is known as the “authoritarian enclaves,” understood as the set of institutional mechanisms that were inherited from Pinochet’s dictatorship, this modification has met intense opposition from different political sectors.
A reason to be cautious is that winning candidates might have less claim to legitimacy, especially when only a little over 40% of the electorate turns out to vote. This becomes particularly complex if that electorate is biased towards socioeconomic status and age, such as this new body of voters is showing to be after two elections. This, in turn, can raise concerns about representation, and nothing but justify the increasing number of social protests about salient topics within the country.
In sum, while this change did have a positive goal, it has not come without some costs. Several previous modifications, such as an improved ballot, a social debate about voting as a duty contrasted to voting as a right, and an electronic voting system could have helped pave the way to a smoother change. So far, the rule modification is not living up to the expectations in Chile. Experiences such as this one reactivate the debate about institutional changes and their implementation in some countries, that although they may appear as positive changes on paper, they could end up harming some democratic practices that took so long to establish.