Will complacency doom democracy?

Public involvement in a country’s governance is the cornerstone of democracy. Some countries do it well, others not so.

UK based company Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has created a nifty way of assessing just how well countries do democracy. They call it (funnily enough) the Democracy Index and it scores countries on a scale of authoritarian regime to full democracy (or 1 to 10) with flawed democracies and hybrid regimes in between.

The Democracy Index assesses each country according to key components that make up a good democracy:

  • electoral process and pluralism
  • functioning of government
  • political participation
  • political culture
  • civil liberties

Figure 1 shows how the world’s countries fared in 2017 (light colour = low score, dark colour = high score).

Things don’t look great for central Africa and the Middle East, but almost all of north and south America (Cuba is a notable exception), eastern Europe, south east Asia, Australia and New Zealand are pretty egalitarian. Presumably this is why those areas are known as the ‘free world’, in some circles at least.

Figure 1: The world according to the Democracy Index. (Data source: the Democracy Index)

The Democracy Index has been compiled since 2006. By switching the layer on Figure 1 you can see who the biggest movers are from 2006 to 2017 (red=worse, white=same, blue=improved). Russia and Venezuela have clearly gone downhill according to the Democracy Index. Africa is a mixed bag with improvements in many countries in the west and in declines for several countries in the east. The big improvers are Myanmar, Bhutan and Nepal (admittedly from a relatively low base).

America: land of the free or land of complacency?

The base prerequisite for democracy is free and fair elections. But to get value from the process, citizens need to participate.

One would assume that those countries with a high Democracy Index (the ‘free world’ dark countries in Figure 1) would have a high voter turn out because it’s part of their culture and they’re confident that their vote would actually count.

One should never assume.

Figure 2: How many people voted in the last election. (source the International IDEA Institute for Democracy and Electoral Justice)

In fact, there is a poor correlation between measures of democracy (as shown in figure 1) and voter turnout (as shown in figure 2). See figure if you don’t believe us.

Figure 3: Voter turn out Vs Democracy Index. (source The Democracy Index)

Compulsory voting

This seems particularly strange in the self proclaimed ‘land of the free’, for example. In the USA only 65% of registered voters bothered to cast a vote in the recent presidential election won by millionaire real estate mogul and reality TV star, Donald Trump (a lesson here surely).

Even the 65% participation is actually an inflated figure because only registered voters are considered, while eligible unregistered voters, who didn’t bother to show up, are not.

Just 58% of eligible voters participated in the 2016 US presidential election.

Contrast that to to Guinea Bissau in west Africa, which scores a paltry 2 out of 10 in the democracy index making it an authoritarian regime. Yet, in the tiny country’s most recent elections (2014) 89% of registered voters cast their vote.

There is obviously a more complex story about why individuals vote. Presumably some abstain as a form of protest (who that benefits is unclear), or only vote if they stand to personally gain materially, or if there is viable alternative.

No doubt some only vote more when things are going poorly. But on the flip side, when the economy is in the toilet maybe individuals are busy trying to survive rather than engage in the political process.

There are a dozen or so countries that have compulsory voting – actually 22, but only 11 enforce it (Australia included). What was refreshing for Australia is that in the recent non-compulsory gay marriage survey, 79.5% of eligible voters participated (compared to 91% for the most recent -compulsory- federal election). It seems that Australians take voting seriously. The Dutch used to have compulsory voting, after it was removed in 1967, turn-out dropped by about 20%. Similarly in Venezuela the turn-out dropped by 30% when compulsory voting was removed in 1993.

The arguments for and against compulsory voting largely focus on the arguments of whether it is a civil right (which one can choose to exercise like freedom of speech) or a civil duty (which one has a responsibility to exercise like jury duty).

Studies show that in all but the closest elections, the effect of compulsory vs non-compulsory voting would not likely impact the overall outcome for US elections. That is largely because there are not many close US elections (recent history being an exception). In Australia, the affect of compulsory voting is thought to favour the labor party.

I can appreciate the argument that compulsory voting encourages policies that pander to those who are otherwise uninterested in voting – effectively lowering the level of the debate. Based on this rationale, we would expect to see a higher level and more sophisticated political debate from non-compulsory voting countries like the USA (again the theory doesn’t always reflect reality).

The upshot from this little investigation is that despite the nightly doom and gloom about failing democracies, the free world has robust and stable democracies but there is a lot of room for improvement through most of Africa.


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