Voting Mandate Set to Impose “Citizen’s Obligation” on Colombians

Colombia's Senate is on track to pass a new compulsory-voting law in time for the next election.
Colombia’s Senate is on track to pass a new compulsory-voting law in time for the next election. (Globovisión)

EspañolColombia may soon join the list of Latin-American countries with compulsory voting laws. On Thursday, September 25, a Senate committee approved the proposal as part of President Juan Manuel Santos’s package of reforms.

If the bill survives the next seven legislative sessions, voting will become obligatory for all Colombian citizens in every election, including referendums involving the government’s peace agreements with the FARC guerrilla.

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Once passed, the proposal would undergo a trial period over the next three election cycles, before fully going into full effect in June of 2015. The central government plans to provide incentives to encourage civic participation, while also imposing penalties on those who do not turn up to the polls.

Senator Roy Barreras Montealegre of the Social Party of National Unity (or Party of the U), who backed President Santos’s reelection, is enthusiastically supportive of mandatory voting as a democratic instrument. He has introduced the proposal four times in the last eight years.

“This is about 8 million Colombians who previously abstained from voting, and will now help us better our democracy and clean up election customs. We will be guaranteed that those citizens who do not vote for whatever reason will not sell their vote, and therefore this will be free, independent, and once again legitimize our Colombian institutions,” said the senator.

There will be compulsory voting with incentives and sanctions. It is an invitation for the millions of Colombians who abstain to clean up our democracy.

In addition, Barreras insists that this new policy will provide citizens with a way to let their government know whether or not they accept the peace agreement with the FARC, currently being negotiated in Havana, Cuba.

The compulsory-voting proposal is part of the same package of constitutional reforms that Santos has put forth seeking to adjust the balance of power in government. The reform also aims to eliminate presidential reelections.

Civic Duty

Liberal Party Senator Viviane Morales has been a prominent advocate for mandatory voting in Colombia.
Liberal Party Senator Viviane Morales has been a prominent advocate for mandatory voting in Colombia. (@CableNoticias)

An organization that promotes the blank vote (an unmarked, protest vote) in Colombia, Citizens Blank Movement, have released a statement in support of the reform, as a step in the right direction.

“We believe this initiative could strengthen the opinion vote, since a large number of the abstentions that we have seen in previous elections would undoubtedly translate to blank votes. Those who don’t vote normally abstain as an act of protest, and a lack of confidence in the corrupt system of Colombian politics.”

Senator Viviane Morales, of Bogotá and the Liberal Party, believes the reform will “strengthen democratic values,” and is in favor of the legislation. “Compulsory voting is a mechanism that can help reduce corruption … It is a citizen’s obligation to participate in the political life of the country,” she said.

Fraud and Cronyism Potential

For his part, Senator Alexánder López of the Social Democratic Pole said this proposal will encourage corruption and violence in the country.

Compulsory voting in Colombia amid scandal, electoral fraud, and cronyism, does not strengthen democracy.

“Abstention in Colombia occurs because the vast majority of Colombians do not believe in an electoral system that allows for fraud and repression. Forcing Colombians to vote does not solve these problems. On the contrary, it will only deepen them,” the senator told La Patria.

Chief Electoral Registrar Alfonso Portela adds that making voting compulsory will involve doubling the cost of elections in Colombia.

“Today, we’re talking about a budget of $7 billion pesos (almost US$350 million). In a scenario with compulsory voting, we would spend $1.3 trillion pesos (US$640.9 million),” said Portela.

Latin America Divided

In countries like Nicaragua, Venezuela, Chile, Costa Rica, and Guetamala, voting remains voluntary. However, in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Paraguay, and Bolivia, citizens are forced to vote. In the event that they cannot, people in these countries must report to a local police station and explain themselves. Although not always enforced, an unexcused absence from the polls may be punished with fines, community service, or the revocation of certain government-issued licenses.

In Ecuador, for example, the Code of Democracy mandates that nonvoters pay a fine equal to 10 percent of a day’s minimum wage, currently around US$39.80.

In Argentina, under the Sáenz Peña Law (or Law 8.871), enacted in 1912, fines may be imposed on those who do not vote, although they are rarely enforced.

During the 2013 presidential elections in Chile, in which Michelle Bachelet emerged victorious, the country instituted a mechanism for the automatic and obligatory registration of all voters. The act of voting itself, however, remained voluntary.

Ángel Soto, a history professor at the University of the Andes, Chile, believes universal registration and voluntary voting to be a step in the right direction.

“I find that automatic registration and voluntary voting in Chile, regardless of the outcome in terms of participation, is a step towards better facilitating civic participation, which I believe further legitimizes democratic institutions,” he told the PanAm Post.

“The challenge is to supplement these policies with a civic education that raises awareness of the need to participate in decision-making processes. It is a sign of political maturity, [and] of democratic maturity.”

Compulsory Voting: Shades of Grey

Mario Serrafero, an Argentinean professor with a PhD in political science and sociology, explains that there is no perfect formula for democracy. He says there are well-functioning democracies throughout the world with both compulsory and voluntary voting policies.

Serrafero argues that the legitimacy of a democracy is not necessarily dependent on whether or not votes are required or optional, but rather on “transparency, competitiveness, and electoral freedoms.” A key element, he adds, is that “institutions put what voters have demanded into practice.”

“How do we interpret low voter turnout in countries where it is voluntary? It’s been said that when this happens, nonvoters delegate their decision-making to those who do vote. It may also be evidence of political apathy or a certain complacency with the current political situation. Both systems have their pros and cons,” he says.

He further points out that both options have their risks: “Voluntary voting has the value of respecting individual liberty, but it can induce a certain stillness and depoliticization of society. Compulsory voting, however, while it does increase politicization, can also foment cronyism and the manipulation of the public.”

Translated by Guillermo Jimenez.

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