Issue - December 2009

December 2009


In this edition An analysis of the right to vote or not, as citizens option in a democratic society; traffic road safety problem in Cochabamba city Petra Vissers tells us about some initiatives to educate people; Justin Gouin interviews Cochabamba’s Red de Mujeres Lesbianas and Bisexuales de Bolivia founder

December 2009

A Right or An Obligation?
Voting. . .

To vote or not to vote… there is no option

Justin Gouin
Projects Abroad Volunteer
Vancouver - Canada

Article 6 of Bolivia’s electoral code states that every citizen has the right to vote in all presidential and parliamentary elections, without distinction. according to the code, universal, voting is direct, free, secret, and mandatory. Article 10 clarifies the latter means: to exercise one’s right to vote is an obligatory duty for all citizens of the Plurinational Republic.

As the December 6 presidential election approaches, the implications of this system of mandatory voting are significant, striking at the root of the individual’s within the democratic process. At first, that well-known expression “if you do not vote, you can not complain” comes to mind, but this slightly obnoxious expression, seems to be an oversimplification of a complex problem. Even if it were true, does that really mean that a citizen should be forced to the polls. Although this system of mandatory voting is not technically enforced by official legal proceedings in Bolivia, those citizens who choose not to vote will find that social life becomes increasingly difficult in the ensuing three months. Without the tiny card that affirms participation in the election, a Bolivian citizen will find that claiming a salary at banks or obtaining a passport is impossible.

Obligatory voting is not a practice that is unique to Bolivia, nor the developing world. Countries such as Australia, Turkey, Italy, and France impose voting requirements on their citizens at at least one level of government, and levy punishments against those who fail to comply, though these are generally benign.

Considering the persistent trend of ever increasing voter apathy in countries where voting is not mandatory, the practice takes on an interesting dimension. Taking as a example the most recent election in the United States, which saw the highest voter turnout since the 1960s, it is clear that with only 56.8% of the eligible population casting their ballots that the government’s mandate reflects only a fraction of the total population. This cannot be the ideal for the democratic system, even if mandatory voting is not the solution. The question remains: is the burden of these inconveniences too great on the average citizen to warrant such methods to get out the vote, or is an acceptable price if it successfully stimulates participation? Both problems appear to be significant.

It is difficult to ignore the seemingly implicit contradiction that arises when a right becomes a citizen’s mandatory duty. How, one asks, can it be a right if it is a legal obligation?

The arguments for and against mandatory voting are straightforward. Supporters argue that the practice endows the government with more legitimacy because it compels citizens to become more knowledgeable and because it ensures that the government’s mandate reflects a broader base of the population. They also claim that it has a community building effect, making citizens feel more engaged and socially included, and may even result in some citizens becoming more politically active in other aspects of social life, taking part in, for example, community organizing. Another positive aspect of compulsory voting is said to be the reduction, or even the elimination of implicit socio-economic biases that persist due to unequal rates of political activity between different societal demographics, which translates, of course, into a more equitable distribution of power across groups. Given that the penalties in most countries are minor, they also suggest that the benefits outweigh the symbolic losses to an individual’s freedom.

A number of critics take a strong stance against the practice, suggesting that the use of financial and social sanctions to compel citizens to get out to vote is undemocratic. How, they ask, can a right be enforced? Voting, they argue, implicitly contains the right to be apolitical. They also contend that compulsory voting also encourages ‘donkey-voting’, which occurs when votes are cast at random by citizens who are obligated to vote, but who possess no real interest in or opinion on the political condition in their country. Further it can obscure support for independent candidates and new, smaller parties because many of those who ‘donkey vote’ will often simply cast their ballots for the first person on the list or for the best known candidate, negating the grassroots support and voter enthusiasm that generally gets out the vote for candidates with less party affiliation, and thus less dogmatic support. Finally, mandatory voting is frequently thought to simply mask the issue of voter disinterestedness and apathy without actually addressing the complex roots of this increasingly common problem.

The dilemma is further nuanced by the differences between and sense of democratic responsibility for the citizens in each countries. Vivian Schwarz, professor of sociology at San Simon University and member of the Ciudadania and LAPOP Bolivia empirical research projects, believes that most Bolivians would likely participate in the democratic process regardless of whether or not it was their legal obligation to do so. She explains, “For a very long period of time a large portion of the population was excluded from participation in the political process, from nearly all decision-making processes. Politics was reserved for a very small portion of the population and for a long period since the state has been making efforts directed towards extending citizens’ rights and towards including those parts of the population that were marginalized and excluded. Many Bolivians remember when they were not a part of these processes of decision-making and nation building, and now they want to feel as though they are contributing. As well, a strong union culture exists here, and this adds to the enthusiasm with which many Bolivians approach politics: they all want to participate, even if it is not direct. So with mandatory voting, I’m not sure that they feel as though it is too much of a charge, because usually they see democracy as being about freedoms, rights and advantages. I doubt they see it as a dire imposition.”

Interestingly enough, when considered as such the system of mandatory seems to operate more as a mechanism of inclusion than as an imposition on citizens. For Bolivians that are far removed from the country’s major metropolises, the presentation of voting as mandatory duty to the state can, in some cases, draw citizens to voting booths when they would not otherwise participate. In a country with a political and social history as rich as Bolivia’s, this practice of inclusion has both practical and symbolic significance for a good percentage of the population.

Recently, an effort for more election transparency has actually led to an increase in this push towards participation. During the past three months, the government has managed to register an astonishingly one million more voters than in the 2006 election by using a system of biometric registration. The enthusiasm with which this program, which was thought to be an impossible endeavor in a three-month span, was absolutely astonishing to all parties involved, both government and opposition.

While this does not get at the philosophical underpinnings of mandatory voting, it does demonstrate that to a large degree it appears as though Bolivians are politically active regardless of their stated obligations. While Schwarz admitted that she disagrees with the practice of mandatory voting, explaining that as a student of political philosophy she does not accept that what is supposed to be a citizen’s right can be enforced, she still believes that each citizen has a responsibility to participate in their political environment. She argues, “There is an individual responsibility to keep one’s society functioning, so we do have the duty to be informed, to help make decisions, to get involved. And not only in situations in which we are dissatisfied with a decision or with a leader and want to express that dissatisfaction, but also simply to maintain a strong balance and good social relations amongst groups. It’s a part of one’s political responsibility in building the society that he or she lives in, in contributing to the community that is giving one his or her rights and opportunities, assuming that a person is getting these.”

Cochabamba’s education of traffic rules and regulations

Just before I arrived in Cochabamba, I finally got my drivers license. It took me almost a year and a lot of struggle to get it but eventually I was given my ¨license to freedom¨. From that moment, I was able to go everywhere I wanted—much to my father’s chagrin when I commandeered the family vehicle. Unfortunately, I was only able to enjoy this new-found liberty for a week.

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