After twenty years abroad, sporadically voting at presidential elections at the American Consulate, yesterday I received through the mail my voter I.D. card. Local elections for several local offices have just gone by, but I would not have had a clue on who to vote. A blessing, a delay, in disguise. My next vote can only be cast on the primaries in September next year. Until then, all that is left is to comment on the bizarre American political landscape and wait.
This confusion about who votes, who does not, and who is to blame has a single culprit: in America you vote if you want to vote — it is a right, not a duty.
There are numerous democracies where voting is an obligation. Penalties for not attending are usually irrelevant from a pecuniary or punitive standpoint, but the shared sentiment that one must vote, even if one wants not, creates a political climate during election time which is very different from the one experienced in the United States.
First, the apathy that defines the decision not vote is not an option for those living in democracies where one must vote. This apathy is visible in the lack of political marketing and regulation to control it. Elsewhere, billboards are marred with propaganda; radio and television, and social media of course, are taken by political debates, opinions here and there, advertising for political candidates and platforms. Noone can escape the mass politics logic of an election decided by those who must vote, all citizens. In America, even though these happenings of the cycle of electoral politics are present, they seem to be part of a rehearsed game of snakes and ladders. Public opinion, measured in polls, means nothing when one can declare anything now and do whatever they fancy como election day. Even be a no show.
Where one must vote, however, these polls gain a different meaning. As all must show up on D-day, the polls function as flashes of what the universe of the electorate would do were the ballots cast on that day. In other words, sampling is a joke in one scenario, but a real statistical (and marketing) tool in the other. (James Fishkin has several interesting studies and experiments with the limits of political opinion polls in America, but I am not sure he sufficiently understands how much the “right to vote”, as opposed to the “duty to vote” changes the landscape of democratic experiences.) Apathy in countries where there is an obligation to vote is an anti-republican attitude, in the eyes of the many often a betrayal of the common good and its democratic values.
Second, politicians in countries where there is no duty to vote most likely will seek for their constituencies amongst those with pre-established affinities, as opposed to being chosen by the electorate which adheres to values and interests expresses by them. That is to say, the motivation behind voting, in one case, is waiting to be found by someone with whom he empathizes, making it pay to get out of bed and vote; in the other case, it is the electorate which must seek a candidate with whom he has empathy. More subjective, more active. Americans are handed out alternatives and if none reaches standards, just don’t vote. Brazilians, for instance, do not have that luxury. The least worse candidate is still the best candidate to vote for. Always. The fine for not voting is only a few dollars, but the paper work creates the necessary disincentives for not voting.
In sum, there is a case to be made for the role of the “right to vote” in explaining recent “electoral” surprises, which nowadays a walloping three fourths of the population finds unsuited for office. Needless to remind ourselves that only one fourth of the citizenry voted against it. The other two fourths who do not like what they see were perhaps exercising there “right not to vote”. The price is steep. As it was steep in 2000.
Americans, liberal and conservatives, republicans and democrats, have always been bastoins of the political liberties of their citizenship. The concept of voting as a liberty, however, brings about paradoxical and often undesirable results, many times not even expressing what the majority wants. American voters either conceive of themselves as an aristocracy of the best, a possibility I do not entertain, or they simply value their liberties over their common good. They want the liberty to stay at home on election day, and the right to protest or defend a choice many, actuall about half of them did not make. It is time America contemplate a serious constitutional debate on the “duty to vote”. It might not wither away with the inequalities that define the country’s political economy, but it would certainly bring out the best reasons each side has to insist in defending the ackward idea that democracy is about my “right to vote” and choosing to stay home watching a college football match.