Last May 25th, while the first round of presidential elections took place in Colombia, the 28 countries comprising the European Union voted to renew the 751 members of its parliament. Although both processes seemed to have little in common before election day, after voting had concluded, abstention emerged as a clear point of convergence.
High absenteeism rates—59.92% out of 32.9 million voters in Colombia and 56.91% out of 400 million voters in the EU—placed these elections under a critical spotlight. The democratic system only makes sense when citizens who are eligible to vote do so. However, this time, absenteeism sparked concern in both the EU and Colombia.
Abstentionism in each country depends on a series of variables such as: the electoral system, people’s educational level, social inequalities, mistrust in the institutions, and performance of political parties. The State and political stakeholders must work together to avoid letting any of these elements become a driver for non-participation.
One of the paths the US and some European and Latin American nations are taking to fight abstention is modernizing suffrage. Election automation can stimulate electoral participation by speeding up suffrage, offering security in the process and transparency in the results, eliminating or minimizing null votes, and offering fast and reliable results.
In Europe, electoral modernization has had various approaches, among which we will mention just a few: Estonia, Switzerland, and Norway have taken firm steps to facilitate online remote voting. In fact, the participation of those who voted online during the European parliamentary elections rose from 14.7% to 31.3% compared to this same election in 2009. Belgium, who has been an electoral modernization leader since the 90’s, uses voting technology extensively. Along with Luxembourg, Belgium obtained the highest voter attendance rate in Europe. Although voting is mandatory there, there is no doubt that the efforts done by the Belgian authorities to improve voter experience have yielded positive results. It is also worth highlighting that countries like the UK, where voting is done with paper and pencil, had a participation rate of 36%, Cyprus had 42.3% (the lowest in the country’s political history), and Spain had a 45.58% participation rate.
In Colombia’s case, low turnout seems to have political roots: a poor electoral offer and a very negative electoral campaign. However, the continuity of manual voting does not contribute to generate the necessary trust in any electoral process. Last March, during parliamentary elections, doubts arose over the results after a considerable delay in the publication of the official numbers and the registration of an astounding 10% of null votes.
Democracy is legitimized and consolidated through voting, which is why citizens’ participation in elections is vital to preserve this freedom system. Auditable, transparent voting systems are the perfect ally to defeat the abstention that hurts Colombia and the European Union.