Voter abstention and logistical problems mar Chilean elections


On October 23, during the Chilean municipal elections, voter abstention reached a historic peak.

According to the nation’s electoral service (Servel), only 4,931,041 voters went to the polls, marking a turnout of 35%. The high level of voter abstention (65%) placed these elections under scrutiny, since the democratic system only starts making sense if the citizens allowed to vote participate actively in the choosing of their representatives.

Together with this low turnout, there were other problems that cast doubts on Servel’s organizational capacities.  On the one side, the ballots were excessively large, which made them hard to handle.  According to the local press, voters had problems to understand the ballot layout, to handle them during the voting (i.e. folding them) or simply inserting them into the ballot boxes.  Moreover, logistical issues such as delays in the setup of polling stations made voting harder for many citizens.

After the election, politicians and the media have focused on its political impact.  That is the case of president Michelle Bachelet, who after seeing her party coalition lose support, admitted that the country demands better public servants.  However, beyond strictly political matters, the truth is that such levels of abstention merit a broad analysis, one that includes the search for a voting model that facilitates access to the polls.

Democracy is legitimized and consolidated through the vote. Auditable, transparent and easily understandable electoral mechanisms are the perfect allies to defeat abstention and the problems that mar Chilean democracy today. Through their silence, the Chilean voters demand that their authorities take on the challenge to modernize their voting practices.


Elections in Chile: challenges for the electoral administration

The upcoming municipal elections on Sunday, October 23, will start a new electoral cycle in Chile that will end with the presidential and parliamentary elections of 2017.  However, these democratic exercises could be tainted by the persistence of some factors that have acted against electoral legitimacy.

For decades, voter abstention has worried Chileans. As reported by Infobae: “Chile is the country with the highest voter abstention in the world”. This fact represents a great challenge, not only for the country’s electoral authorities, but for Chilean society as a whole.  “58% of the electoral registry chose to abstain from the 2013 elections which were won by Michelle Bachelet”, states Infobae.

Recent forecasts show that only 14 million people will go to the polls, which represents a mere 40% of the electorate.

In addition to voter turnout, a second element that goes against the elections’ success is the design and the size of the ballot, a direct consequence of the Chilean manual voting system.

According to information from the Electoral Service (Servel), there are ballots with sizes comparable to a 32” TV.

The province of Maipú has the largest ballots in the country. The incumbent mayor of the commune, Christian Vittori, who is aiming for reelection, admitted that the ballot will pose big challenges to a large section of the electorate.  He said this could drive voter abstention even higher.

In addition to these difficulties, this southern nation could not fix the biggest technical issue of their electoral history: the relocation of polling centres servicing 400 thousand voters without their authorization.  The late reaction by the authorities stopped them from solving the problem, which substantially altered the voter distribution in several communes (up to 12k voters in some cases), and could impact the results beforehand.

The situation has become so complicated that some deputies asked for the drafting and approval of a norm to postpone the election.  However, what is certain is that Chile will go to the polls with grave issues still unresolved.

The stage is set so Chilean authorities begin to think about electoral modernization. It is time for Chile to revise their voting system and give technology a chance, so that citizen trust can be restored and anchored in an automated model that makes voting easier, guaranteeing that results are derived from high voter turnout.

Colombian registry offers quick results

The October 2 plebiscite in Colombia was not only a surprise because of the result against the peace accord between the Government and the Farc, but also due to the speed with which the Colombian National Civil Registry delivered partial results.

According to words of the Manager himself, Juan Carlos Galindo Vácha, 55 minutes after the polls closed, bulletin 11 was issued with 97.88% of the votes tallied.

This being said, and in the hopes of generating a constructive debate that leads to better elections in the region, it is important to clear some points of the Colombian electoral system that affect how results are broadcast.

Plebiscite – Yes vs No. The referendum that took place in Colombia was the simplest kind of election there is.  Voters marked one of two available options on a ballot: Yes or No. Counting the votes in such events presents no major problems.  However, in more complex elections, manual vote counts start showing their limits.

Its enough to remember what happened during the March 2010 legislative elections, when it took several days to find out who had won the seats, and months for them to be formally assigned.   The same has happened in regional and municipal elections.

Closing the polls at a fixed time.  Differently from other countries where the voting is extended as long as there are voters in line, in Colombia polls close at 4 pm.  Additionally, while some nations have to wait until all polls close, Colombia can start publishing partial results online just a few hours into the voting.

Official results vs pre-count

The announcements made on election night correspond to a non-official count.  This pre-count is informative in nature, and has no validity against the official tally that is published weeks later.

As the Registry Office website  warns: Agreement Nr 019 of the year 1994 of the CNE (National Electoral Council): “… bulletins made public by the Registry Office have a mere informative quality and shall never be considered as electoral documents that define an election…”

Online results

The Registry Office’s website showed the pre-count in real time, as partial results were being received by the authorities.

This broadcast of results definitively adds transparency to the process.  In other countries in the region, such as Venezuela, the authorities share results with political figures so they can compare them to their estimates before they are made public.  This significantly delays their broadcast, diminishing their credibility and giving politicians an undeserved sense of prominence.

Although the celerity of these results may lead some to be in favour of manual counts, something important is worth noting: In spite of the simplicity of this election, the number of null votes (170,946) and blank ballots (86,243) is almost five times larger than the difference between the Yes and the No options (53,994). There is no reasons to think there was any misconduct by the electoral workers who processed the votes; however, they should not have the authority to decide an election.  The precision of results is one of the best arguments by those who promote technology to register votes.