The Chilean Senate passed a constitutional law that makes voting voluntary and registration automatic, incorporating millions of new voters into the system and removing penalties previously tied to obligatory voting.
Chile’s Electoral Service predicts the change will see 4.7 million new voters added to its electoral registry in time for the 2012 municipal election next October, a change sure to affect both local and national politics alike. Nearly 75% of Chile’s new voters will be under the age of 30, reported the Associated Press.
“The system of automatic registration allows a historic growth for the electoral roll, covering, for the first time in our history, all citizens who are eligible to vote,” Secretary General Cristián Larroulet told El Mercurio. He went on to praise the legislation’s passage as “a historic event.”
Under Chile’s current voting system, voter registration is voluntary, but once registered a voter is obligated to show up at the polls. Any registered voter who fails to submit his or her ballot faces a fine of up to 210 US dollars.
Under the present system, Chile faces a shrinking electorate, with more registered voters dying each year than new potential voters registering. Only 10% of Chile’s 8.1 million registered voters are under the age of 30.
The idea behind the recently passed voter reforms was first floated in 2004 with the goal of reinvigorating youth interest in politics, but was not officially proposed until the Bachelet administration took up the issue in 2009.
The new law languished for almost 13 months before it finally passed as certain Chilean political parties foresaw the law as a potential liability in upcoming elections.
The biggest debate in the Senate concerning the reforms dealt the addition of incentives for those who vote.
Mariano Ruiz-Esquide, senator from the centre-left Christian Democratic party, said, “the incentives are the putrefaction of democracy. It’s an attempted purchase of an idea -- a bribery made legal.”
The senators held a separate vote to decide on what, if any, incentives would be included in the reform. The only incentive approved in the senate allows voters to work only half days on election days. The two incentives that were rejected would have awarded registered voters advantages when applying for scholarships and public office.
The addition of 4.7 million voters to the electoral registry is expected to benefit more extreme and polarizing parties, with the centrists expected to lose ground. The system may also favour the wealthiest parties that can spend more resources in encouraging wealthy, urban and well-connected voters to go to the polls.
Under the new law, voters will be added to the national registry when they turn 17, but are not able to vote until they turn 18. Voting stations will now remain open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., and polls will no longer mark voters’ thumbs with ink to indicate that they have cast a ballot.
In order for the law to be ratified it must now be reviewed by Chile’s Constitutional Court, which will devote the entire month of January to its analysis. If the law passes approval in the court, it will go into effect beginning Feb. 1, 2012.
By Stephen Shea – The Santiago Times