On the sunny clear morning of May 25th this year, Mayor Sylvester James of Kansas City made a heartfelt extempore speech that moved many Kansas City residents gathered to mark Memorial Day. What struck me, as a foreigner, was that in memorializing those who had sacrificed for the country, he mentioned and made a relevant connection to voter turnout in America. He expressed disappointment that people don’t take time to vote because it means driving a few blocks to a polling station. Yet, he said America sends “troops to countries who want the right to vote, and (who) will die for the right to vote for others.”
Mayor James’ frustration was understandable, as only 12.03% of eligible voters turned out for Kansas City’s Mayoral and City Council primary elections in March. Turnout at general elections on June 23rd were exactly a percent higher. Appealing to his fellow citizens to turnout in greater numbers to vote was not because he was seeking re-election. His victory, secured with an overwhelming 89% of votes, was a foregone conclusion given his excellent performance and high ratings during his first term. He was alluding to a trend occurring in his city and much of America. Kansas City election records show a declining voter turnout. Even presidential elections, which see higher turnout than local elections due to prolonged and intense media coverage, have also seen incremental decline.
I learned Kansas City residents age 60 and above turnout in higher numbers for local elections than those below age 30. So beyond the act of voting, I sensed the Mayor was also expressing concerns about citizens, especially the younger generation, becoming less engaged in civic life. Not playing their part to build an even brighter future for the city and country.
I observed the primary and general elections courtesy of the Kansas City Board of Election Commissioners. As I watched the final ballots being counted on June 23rd, I was taken back to the night of March 24th, 2008, to the Election Commission Office of my country, Bhutan, where the final votes for our first historic parliamentary elections were being tallied. That night represented Bhutan’s peaceful transition from a monarchy to becoming the world’s youngest democracy. The next morning, the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) of Bhutan declared to a large gathering of national and foreign media that 79.45% of voters had turned out to vote in their first democratically elected parliamentarians.
To observers, Bhutan’s election turnout, where voting is voluntary, was impressive. Such a large turnout is usually associated with a country with compulsory voting. It could’ve been attributed to people’s enthusiasm for democracy, but more than enthusiasm, there was a deliberate effort. The King of Bhutan and his Father – who abdicated in 2006 – the two greatest proponents of democracy in Bhutan, had prepared Bhutanese over a period of three decades to govern themselves. The King repeatedly highlighted the sacred responsibility of voting to elect capable leaders for democracy to succeed. With such encouragement and extensive voter education by the CEC and his able team, many in Bhutan expected a large voter turnout.
Voter turnout at elections in 2013 was not as impressive. It dropped to 66.13%. In the first five years of democracy, Bhutanese leadership understood the complexities of politics and that making it successful would not be smooth sailing. Had this decreased people’s enthusiasm for democracy? Not necessarily. In fact, the commitment of the Bhutanese leadership in democracy continued to sustain people’s interest. Lower voter turnout could be attributed to elections coinciding with the farming season and monsoons keeping many farmers away from the polls. Many postal ballots, extended to civil servants, corporate employees and students, were also declared invalid. Some expressed voter fatigue since there were several local elections preceding national elections.
Conversely, besides voter apathy alluded to by Mayor James, another explanation I heard in America is that many people feel their vote doesn’t count. Such thinking has a multiplier effect leading to lower turnout. For others, the voter registration process deters them. Voter fatigue was another factor. An American friend also joked that voters may only turnout in greater numbers to oppose candidates with extreme views.
In the face of declining voter turnout, should voting be made compulsory? Should all democracies take the route of Australia and the other 27 countries with compulsory voting? Australia, for example, consistently averages an 80% turnout and failure to vote means a fine of A$20 – rising to A$170 if the initial penalty isn’t paid. Other compulsory voting countries have similar turnout and penalties although rarely enforced. Data from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance show a 7.37% difference between the highest voter turnout of countries without and with compulsory voting.
The general argument, however, against compulsory voting is its inconsistency with freedom of choice guaranteed by democracy. I assume many Kansas City residents and their compatriots would align themselves with this argument just as we in Bhutan felt when we set the rules for our democracy. The counter argument is that democracy also comes with responsibilities, one of which is to exercise your franchise – something taken for granted that Mayor James also hinted in his speech.
There are several similarities between Kansas City and Bhutan in the electoral realm. For instance, multi parties in Bhutan and multiple candidates in Kansas City competing at primary level; two candidate run-off at general elections; and both with less than half million registered voters – Bhutan – 390,000 and Kansas City – 201,585. The last similarity implies that every vote can make a difference in the outcome of elections so it’s even more crucial for high voter turnout. Besides it also gives elected representatives and governments greater legitimacy.
When voters don’t exercise their franchise, by default they allow others to make decisions for them. They have to live with the decision of the small minority who voted. In the case of local elections in America where more elderly voters are turning out, older people are deciding the future for the younger generation when it is they who should actively engage to determine their own future.
Many countries including Bhutan are continually innovating to make voting more convenient. Postal and absentee ballots are even extended to their nationals living abroad. In Bhutan, democracy clubs in schools and a recently established Children’s Parliament are helping raise civic awareness from an early age. Online voting is also being explored so more people can vote from the comfort of their home, but the question is how can it be made secure.
Until we can figure out a way to make online voting secure and voting even more convenient, we’ll continue to need encouragement of leaders like our King to sustain our high voter turnout. In the case of Kansas City, more impassioned speeches by Mayor James will be needed to evoke a positive response and spur voters to exercise their democratic rights. After all, higher voter turnout and voting are the means to elect capable leaders to build better cities, states and countries. It’s the cornerstone for the success of democracy.
DISCLAIMER: McCain Institute for International Leadership is a non-partisan "do-tank" that is part of Arizona State University. The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the author and do not represent an opinion of the McCain Institute.