Activating the inactive
Many democratic innovations of the citizen-centred variety try to broaden and deepen citizen engagement in political life. They aim to improve knowledge, awareness and understanding of politics and thereby increase the number and variety of individuals and groups involved. Have they succeeded in making citizens more informed, aware and active? For evidence, we turn first to electoral reforms designed to increase voter turnout, then to a large and assorted set of measures that encourage citizen interest and knowledge of public issues, especially those focused on the potential power of e-democracy, and, last, to the co-governance projects that have tried to involve the inactive in public decision making and policy making.
Voter registration reforms try to make it easier for citizens to get their names on the electoral register and to end discriminatory practices. They include same day registration as the poll itself, the elimination of corrupt and discriminatory practices that try to prevent some social groups from registering, public registration campaigns and continuous updating of the register. Many of these are fairly simple technical and bureaucratic matters that can be accomplished with relatively little difficulty, given the political will. However, increasing the percentage registered does not necessarily increase voter turnout significantly, at least in the short term. Newly registered voters often take some time to exercise their political rights, and those who do not vote are not inclined to change, even if their name appears easily or automatically on the register (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2002: 63). Those who do not vote early in their adult life tend to persist with the habit (Electoral Commission 2006a). However, experience suggests that voting turnout of the newly registered may begin to rise towards national levels after a time, as generations are replaced. Voter registration innovations are important, because they help to implement the fundamental right to vote, but they remove technical barriers to voting rather than actively encouraging turnout and, to this extent, their impact is likely to be limited. The real obstacle to voting participation is in the dead weight of social forces that causes lack of political interest and involvement, and voting reforms are more likely to tackle this problem than registration measures.
Innovations that encourage voting mainly take the forms of compulsory voting, early voting, postal voting and electronic voting. Compulsory voting has always been fairly rare in established democracies (Austria, Belgium, Greece, Italy, Luxembourg, Switzerland and Australia) and, even here, the sanctions are sometimes weak, not enforced, or full of loopholes (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2002: 109). Nevertheless, the evidence that turnout is higher in compulsory voting systems (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance 2002: 110) has aroused some interest in other countries (Hill 2002; Ballinger 2006; Electoral Commission 2006b; Keaney and Rogers 2006; Engelen 2007), although it has also been argued that it should be accompanied by positive abstention (the none-of-the-above option on ballot papers). Others argue against compulsory voting on the grounds that it would make rather little difference to ‘real’ (that is, voluntary self-motivated) voter turnout, and that it is contrary to the very ethos of democratic elections (see Electoral Commission, 2006b). Compulsory voting, they argue, is to voting what compulsory religion is to religion - no religion at all.
Early voting, that is in advance of election day, is used in Texas (which also has a ‘curbside’ voting option) and Florida (Gronke 2004: Gronke et al. 2004) and a pilot study was run by the UK’s Electoral Commission (2006a), all with no more than a very limited effect on turnout. Postal voting has been widely tried with some success in increasing turnout at relatively low cost. Against this, it has been said that postal voting simply reinforces the gap between the politically active and inactive, is subject to fraud, has problems with the secrecy of the ballot, and relies heavily on the reliability of the postal system (Slater and James 2007). The fraud problem might be cured with the appropriate checks and controls (as in any form of ballot), but the other problems are less easily solved.
In trying to assess the effect of electoral innovations, it is difficult to know whether they have little effect or whether, perhaps, turnout would have declined even faster without them. In general, it seems that most attempts to increase citizen participation in elections have not been notably successful and the effects, if any, have generally been small. According to Smith (2005: 20) the most promising device for increasing turnout seems to be the technically old-fashioned postal vote, although its impact seems to be more marginal than major. Caution is necessary before dismissing them, however, because it is always possible that it takes a time for reforms to have an impact.