RESPONSIBLE DEMOCRACY

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The case for abolishing minimal voter turnout requirements

Russian democracy is becoming more and more responsible: the right to elect representative government bodies is turning into a duty and a moral choice for citizens who are prepared to vote independently and freely, not needing to be urged on by the authorities.


There will no longer be a minimal threshold for voter turnout in elections. This proposal from United Russia, discussed last week by the Duma’s constitutional law and state-building committee, is very likely to be passed by the parliament on November 15. Russian democracy is becoming more and more responsible: the right to elect representative government bodies is turning into a duty and a moral choice for citizens who are prepared to vote independently and freely, not needing to be urged on by the authorities or intimidated by the opposition’s horror-stories.

Actually, there is nothing fundamentally new in the idea of abolishing the turnout threshold. Existing legislation in this area (resembling a patchwork quilt) has repeatedly prompted those involved in the political process to seek to lift the restrictions. Twenty percent of eligible citizens – that’s the low threshold for regional and local elections, rising slightly for Duma elections (25%) and becoming a serious barrier for presidential elections (50%). What’s more, local and regional thresholds may be adjusted. What is a rule worth if it’s so far from being universal? Hasty measures to standardize the many different turnout thresholds won’t restore order. Paradoxically enough, it’s the voters’ freedom to choose whether or not they vote that actually guarantees order and common standards. Besides, in all free national elections, turnout has been high: anomalously high in the elections for the Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989 and the president of the RSFSR in 1991 (“getting accustomed to democracy”), and stably high for all parliamentary and presidential elections in the new Russia.

Central Electoral Commission Chairman Alexander Veshnyakov, who is skeptical about the electoral legislation changes being initiated by the Kremlin of late, has predicted that turnout will be over 50% in the parliamentary election of 2007 (in comparison, turnout was 47% for the US congressional elections this month). But even if turnout is between 40% and 50%, would anything change?

Opposition politicians – from Nikita Belykh (Union of Right Forces) to Sergei Reshulsky (Communist Party) – have strongly criticized the bill on abolishing the turnout threshold. Their motives are obvious: the most active voters (the elderly, state-sector workers, public servants) tend to vote for United Russia. They’ll turn out to vote regardless of any changes to the law – but the same cannot be said for “Russian yuppies,” for example. So the conditions of participation in the political process aren’t equal.

This line of reasoning is actually harmful. It forces the authorities to mobilize citizens for participation in elections. And the authorities have done so on more than one occasion. Suffice it to recall July 3, 2006 – firmly associated with a clock, nervously and tragically counting down the time remaining until zero hour. Back then, however, all this (like the turnout threshold) had some sort of higher purpose – the Fate of Reforms, for example. And now? Why – for what kind of higher considerations – should the Kremlin do what amounts to forcing regional and local officials to ensure that turnout is high enough? In order to get Yabloko and the Union of Right Forces into parliament? Isn’t this too high a price to pay? Shouldn’t it be up to the right-wingers and democrats themselves to consolidate their voters, fighting for their ideas and values? Or is the Kremlin supposed to do that for them as well?

The presence of a voter turnout threshold in Russian legislation doesn’t brand us as backward, of course. But neither is it a sign of being progressive. The “big democracies” (from America to France) leave the choice up to those who want to make it. Measures to stimulate voter turnout are mostly taken by Latin American countries with a high level of political instability and low living standards. Russia’s socio-economic and political situation has improved radically in recent years. And if our country is moving up on the scale of investment attractiveness, why should it be stuck at the mid-1990s level in its electoral legislation?

A truly free choice is, among other things, a responsible choice. People will have to take responsibility for themselves.

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