Chile's voter registration reform gives major boost to democracy

Registered voters in Chile have long been required to vote or else be fined – a disincentive for many to register.  But the law has been reformed, potentially adding 5 million Chileans to the voter rolls.

With the US presidential election warming up, the political parties are sure to swarm across the country, registering new voters.

While they may lament that many seem uninterested, they have it easy compared to Chilean operators. Here, many people stay off the voter rolls not necessarily because they are politically apathetic, but because they want to avoid a hefty fine.

But now, under a law passed this week, all that will change. Voter registration will be automatic for all qualified residents. And the vote? Voluntary. No more fines. It will be up to the candidates to inspire people to the polls.

"Yesterday, the national congress approved the law to establish automatic inscription and the voluntary vote," President Sebastian Piñera said Wednesday. "This means that almost 5 million Chileans who didn't participate in our democracy will be citizens with the right to vote."

Registered voters in Chile had long been required to cast ballots, under the threat of a fine of up to $224. That means that itinerant miners, overworked house cleaners, and anyone else who may not be near their voting location on election day has a big incentive to stay unregistered. In fact, only one in seven low-income youths is registered.

The addition of so many voters – almost a third of the country's population – is an "invitation to recover confidence and adhesion to our democratic system," President Piñera said.

With its new system, Chile jumps from being one of the most retrograde places for voter registration in the world to one of the most advanced. By the next presidential election, all Chileans, whether young or old, rich or poor, will be on the rolls. By taking out a major obstacle to voting, Chile moves closer to satisfying its people, who have been clamoring for a voice in public policy.

The reform comes after a year of political ferment in the Andean nation. Record-breaking marches by environmentalists and students, as well as protests by copper miners and public employees, showed wide discontent. Protestors were enraged by specific policies, but the marches caught fire because of a widespread sense of disenfranchisement. That same sense has given rise to demands ranging from a reform of the permanently gridlocked congress to a new constitution to replace the one imposed under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

The marchers rarely attacked the voting system in particular as the cause of their problems, but the obligatory vote appeared on lists of how Chile had failed to live up to the promises of democracy. Now many of these Chileans will be able to flex the muscles they have been building up on the streets at the polls.

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