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World: Are Voters Really Free To Choose When Elections Offer Free Food, Transport?

  • Kathleen Moore

Voters on 13 January went to the polls in Russia's far eastern republic of Yakutia to elect a president. Election officials took a novel approach to increasing turnout by offering potential voters incentives to cast their ballots, including discounts on utility bills and the chance to enter a lottery for a Volga car. How widespread are such practices among the world's democracies?

Prague, 21 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Turnout in the Yakutia poll -- won by Vyacheslav Shtyrov, the head of a diamond producing company -- was some 75 percent, reportedly the highest in five years.

Not bad for a republic in a country that, at the national level, only lured an average of 55 percent of eligible voters to the polls during the 1990s. That's according to data compiled by the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).

IDEA looked at voter turnout in elections in 160 countries during the same period. Malta tops the list, with an average of 96.7 percent of voters turning out on polling day. At the bottom is Mali, with just 27.1 percent.

Maria Gratschew is the researcher at IDEA's Voter Turnout Project.

The Yakutia approach to boosting voter turnout may be fairly novel. But Gratschew says she has heard of other examples of voter incentives. She says free transport to and from polling stations is a common one. Sometimes, electoral authorities give small prizes, like books, to first-time voters. Tax breaks have also been touted. Perhaps the most common incentive -- in use in many countries -- is time off from work to go to the polling station.

Gratschew notes that governments have another option at their disposal -- making voting compulsory and fining, imprisoning or making life harder for those who break the law. Some 30 countries, mostly in Europe and Latin America, have adopted this system, but it has a mixed success rate.

"Compulsory voting is not always enforced in practice. Out of the 30 something countries that practice it, only six or seven actually follow up each voter in practice to see if they have voted and whether they should be penalized if they didn't," Gratschew said. "So enforced compulsory voting seems to increase turnout by 15 to 20 percent, while compulsory voting laws that are not enforced in practice only marginally increase turnouts."

Branimir Radev is deputy head of the election section at the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, an arm of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which sends thousands of monitors each year to observe elections. He says it can be a legitimate practice for electoral officials to offer voters incentives -- and there are plenty of examples of benign offerings such as food at polling centers -- but it all depends on the circumstances.

"If a high turnout is sure to secure the election of this candidate or the other, this may be a kind of manipulation from the electoral authorities," Radev said. "But it depends on the complete situation."

He says it's much more common for voting incentives to come in an altogether shadier form -- from political parties or candidates trying to buy votes. Radev says he's heard plenty of reports of such practices -- particularly in the Caucasus and Central Asian countries.

"In the majority of cases, it's some kind of food. It may be olive oil. It may be sunflower oil or rice or some things like that in some places depending on the situation in the country," Radev said. "In some cases, it may be even money."

Radev also cites Belarus, where Alyaksandr Lukashenka won presidential elections in September 2001 that the OSCE criticized as failing to meet democratic standards.

"Last year in the presidential elections in Belarus, there was a promise from the president, President [Alyaksandr] Lukashenka, who was the incumbent and running for a second term in office, that was regarded as actually a sort of offering to a very big part of the population. [Agricultural workers were offered] something like free government fuel for agricultural work. But actually he denied that this was done in connection with the elections," Radev said.

Since many reports of malpractice are hard to verify, Radev says it's also difficult to determine to what extent they influence an election. What is certain is that voter incentives have a long history -- and in established democracies, too.

Jan Leighley is an associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University in the United States who has a specific interest in voter turnout. She says turnout in national elections in the U.S. was highest in the late 1800s when local party workers were highly efficient in turning their knowledge of constituents to their advantage.

"That meant that in wintertime, if someone was having a hard time heating their home, the party leader would provide something like a bucket of coal. Or at a time when food was in short supply, that might mean the delivery of a basket of food," Leighley said. "The argument was that the party was taking care of these families' needs, and in return what the party expected was for the family to vote come election day. And of course not just to vote but to vote properly for their candidates."

Experts say there are countless reasons why voters don't turn out on election day. Hostility to government is one. Cynicism about elected politicians or questions about the fairness of the process is another. Or maybe they just can't be bothered.

If election authorities are keen for a poll to pass some threshold of validity, how should they try to increase turnout?

Radev says it's up to politicians during a campaign to make voters understand their votes count. Gratschew says you have to start by tackling some of the other causes of low turnout -- lack of information, poverty, low literacy rates -- and make it relatively easy to register and have access to polling stations.

Yet even making it easier to vote sometimes doesn't work. In the U.S., several states allow early voting and let people vote absentee without a reason. This was designed to boost voter turnout, but a report by the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate in 2001 showed that these reforms actually had the reverse effect.

Turnout is not an indicator of how democratic an election is. For example, Belarus, in 95th place in IDEA's voter turnout table, ranks above France, Canada, and the U.S.

Why bother trying to increase voter turnout?

In some cases, electoral authorities are trying to ensure a vote passes some threshold of validity. But as Leighley notes, nudging up voter participation by a few percent points -- by offering material incentives, say -- might not be an outright gain.

If the choices made by those extra voters are simply random, Leighley said, "You have to question if we're any better off in the democracy."