The most recent polls put Bachelet just above 50 percent among those who said they definitely or probably would vote, but turnout projections are more uncertain than in the past because of a recent reform that makes voting voluntary rather than compulsory. The shift could affect not only how many Chileans turn out, but the ideological predilections of those who do. If Bachelet is as close to the 50-percent threshold as polls suggest, and if there is a socioeconomic bias to turnout under Chile’s new, voluntary voting system, then the electoral reform could deny Bachelet a first-round victory.
Until 2011, registering to vote was not automatic – Chileans had to choose to do so – but once they registered, voting was compulsory. Starting in 2012, all eligible Chileans were automatically registered, but sanctions for non-voting were removed. The shift aimed to combat alienation from politics among younger Chileans, who, in massive numbers, were opting not to join the voter rolls in the first place. Registering, after all, exposed a citizen to possible fines for not voting that non-registrants would never face. Unless you were deeply committed to a party or candidate, why invite that headache? Some advocates for the reform argued that switching from voluntary registration and compulsory voting to automatic registration and voluntary voting would increase political engagement.
The top panels show raw numbers of registered voters, turnout, and eligible voters (voting age population, or VAP). The bottom panels show registration and turnout as percentages of their relevant populations. The only encouraging figures are in the left-hand panels, which show that automatic registration works to bring eligible citizens into the system. (Perhaps too well. Note that those registered as a share of VAP shot above 100 percent in 2012, as the automatic registry vacuumed up large numbers of deceased Chileans – including former President Salvador Allende, who died during the 1973 military coup.) By any standard, however, turnout fell precipitously in 2012 – as a percentage of registered voters from above 80 percent to about 40 percent, and as a percentage of those eligible from about 60 percent to about 40 percent. This year’s presidential and congressional contests might attract more voters than last year’s municipal elections, but the broad trend toward declining participation in Chile will likely persist.
What effect might this have on the center of gravity in the Chilean electorate? In many countries where voting is voluntary, wealthier citizens turn out at higher rates than do poorer ones. If the poor favor progressive redistribution and the wealthy resist it, then Chile’s reform could reduce support among active voters for Bachelet’s progressive agenda. The Chilean debate over reform was not oblivious to this possibility. Advocates and opponents alike acknowledged the logic, but many expressed skepticism that socioeconomic bias existed in Chilean electoral participation. (Of course, compulsory voting suppresses such bias, so Chile’s prior experience might not have provided a useful guide.) Much of the debate instead focused on whether compulsory voting violated individual liberty, and on whether automatic registration would reduce the political alienation of Chilean youth. Chilean legislators, for their part, supported the reform across party lines. At final passage in the Chamber of Deputies, the vote on the reform bill was 106 in favor to 1 against.
Public opinion data from the period surrounding the reform are consistent with the idea that support for voluntary voting was not connected to support for redistribution, but the data suggest a possible shift following the reform. The figure below summarizes some results from nationwide surveys in 2008, 2010, and 2012, which included questions on attitudes toward compulsory voting and on economic redistribution.*
In each case, the histograms on the left show the distribution of support for redistribution among respondents who supported compulsory voting whereas those on the right show the same information among those who supported voluntary voting. In both of the pre-reform era surveys, 2008 and 2010, public opinion leaned overwhelmingly against compulsory voting – 77 to 22 percent both years – and there was no measurable difference between supporters and opponents of compulsory voting in attitudes toward economic redistribution. In the 2012 survey, which was conducted in the wake of the reform and after the 2012 municipal elections, support for compulsory voting doubled to 46 percent (against 53 percent who still favored voluntary voting), and for the first time, the data suggest a difference between supporters and opponents of compulsory voting on attitudes toward redistribution.
What happened? The initial motivations behind the reform appear to have been unrelated to attitudes toward economic redistribution. After the reform took effect, however, public opinion shifted, perhaps as a result of having observed the drop-off in participation during the 2012 municipal elections. Progressive Chileans might have experienced the first inklings of buyer’s remorse over the end of compulsory voting last year. If Bachelet falls just shy of a first-round majority later this month, that regret could well grow.
* In 2008, the income redistribution question was “Should incomes be made more equal, or should they reward individual effort?” In 2010 and 2012, the question was more individually oriented: “To be a good citizen, how important is it to help Chileans who are poorer than you?” In the 2008 question, lower values (left) indicate more egalitarian attitudes. In 2010 and 2012, by contrast higher values (right) indicate greater support for redistribution.