Turnout has been in the news once again, with a report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee advocating bank holidays on election days, votes at 16 and other structural changes to increase turnout. Structural and institutional changes are, of course, a vital component of making it easier and more desirable to vote. Yet, voting is also a social act, and not just about our personal ease of use and comfort.
Yesterday, my partner, a Romanian expat who lives and works in London, spent 10 hours queuing to vote, making it into the polling station just a quarter of an hour before it closed.
She’d known to expect a hard time – this was the second round of her country’s Presidential election, and the first round, two weeks prior, had seen her queue for more than five hours still not reaching the polling station before it shut.
Outraged, she joined the subsequent protests in London – protests that also happened for the same reason in several other countries. In some cities, protesters attempted to storm consulates and embassies, with Police called in in Paris, as protesters chanted ‘We want to vote!’ Thousands protested in cities in Romania too. In response, the foreign minister was sacked.
The reasons for the problems are clear. The Romanian ministry of foreign affairs failed to provide enough polling stations. Those they had were poorly staffed, and insufficiently supplied.
Whether this was due to incompetence or malfeasance is difficult to say. There is reason to think it may have been an attempted austerity drive gone wrong. While many Romanians believe there was purpose behind this, though conspiracy theories often whirl in the murky waters of Romanian politics.
Whatever the truth, it is certainly the case that the favourite, Prime Minister Victor Ponta was very unpopular amongst expats, who tend to be drawn from highly educated, younger stratas of Romanian society who favoured his opponent, the centre-right Klaus Iohannis. In the first round Iohannis won 46.2% of the vote in the diaspora, better than all but two Romanian counties. Ponta won only 15.9%, worse than all but two.
Nonetheless, Ponta remained the favourite, with polls showing him ten points clear of Iohannis.
On the day of the second round, turnout in Romania turned out to be surprisingly strong. The first round had seen a turnout of 53.2%, sadly typical for post-communist Europe, where disaffection with politics runs high. In the second round turnout was eventually 64.1%, the highest turnout in a Romanian election since 2000.
And when the results came in, Iohannis had won a landslide, winning 54.5% of the vote. From a ten point deficit in the polls, he won by a ten point lead. The obvious explanation is turnout – it grew by 10.9% between rounds. A cursory look through results by county also suggests a correlation between turnout and the vote for Iohannis.
Anecdotal evidence suggests many voters were inspired by the struggles of their compatriots abroad, who braved wind and rain for hours to vote. On social media, images are doing the rounds from Iohannis supporters saying ‘mulțumesc’ (thank you) to Romanian expats for inspiring people to vote.
It is almost sixty years since economist Anthony Downs observed that voting is an irrational act. To queue for ten hours to vote is, perhaps, one of the least rational of all. My other half says she feels like it is her responsibility to vote, she wants to make her voice heard no matter what, and she wants to be a citizen. Voting is a social act, the act of expressing the collective will. Many Romanians lost sight of this until they saw the passion that gripped their compatriots when their vote, their voice, was being taken from them. In voting, she expressed her part in a social contract between citizen, political system and society.
So yes, it is vital to change institutions and create new structures, but it is also up to parties and civil society to show people why they should vote.
I shall leave the final word with my partner (which is the way she usually likes it): “Dear Mr. Klaus Iohannis, I spent 10 hard hours queueing to vote for you. You’d better take care of this country or else…”