By Nele Popp
Citizenship is not necessarily connected to voting rights or even living in a democracy. Someone who lives in an authoritarian state is as much a citizen as someone living in a democracy, as long as both of them are recognised as a citizen by their respective state. With the status as a citizen comes some privileges, first and foremost protection. There are also some responsibilities a citizen is expected to fulfil, like paying taxes, upholding the legal values of their country and ensuring the persistence of their country – for example, by having and raising children.
However, the persistence of a state is not only ensured by future generations but also by upholding and abiding to the political system. In a democracy, this means first and foremost to make use of one’s right to vote. A democracy depends on votes. The whole system is obsolete without democratic participation and after the long struggle for universal voting rights, we should be aware that voting is not only a duty but for many even a privilege. This is reflected in Australian law, where voting is compulsory, as is also the case in Brazil and many other countries.
Women were for a long time among the marginalised groups which struggled for the right to vote. As recently as 1971, Switzerland became one of the last countries to establish women’s suffrage. The exclusion of women had up until then been justified with the logic that only people willing and able to defend the country in a military conflict were to have the right to representation in government. In the United Kingdom, where one of the most notable suffragette movements took place, women fought this injustice vigorously with demonstrations and hunger strikes – until finally attaining the same voting rights as men in 1928 (if you’re interested in that topic, I’d recommend the movie Suffragette with Meryl Streep). It has to be remembered, however, that it had only been ten years earlier when most men in Britain were not able to vote either, as the right to vote had earlier been linked to wealth, property (hence nobility) and status. Sweden established universal and equal suffrage for both men and women simultaneously in 1921.
When looking at the USA, the topic of universal voting rights becomes a bit more complicated. Officially, the universal vote for men was implemented in 1788 before the first presidential election. However, it only covered every man irrespective of skin colour or earlier status as a slave from 1870. Even then, many states implemented taxes and other obstacles to prevent certain people from voting, like the poll tax, which was only abolished state-wide in 1923.
Speaking historically, this is not too long ago, albeit most of us take for granted our right to a free vote. This is not the case in Belarus. While the vote is officially free, the EU and other authorities doubt the legitimacy of all elections after 1994. In light of the demonstrations following the recent election and the resulting violence from the police, Belarus moved into the Human Rights Council’s attention – and although regular news coverage of the situation in Belarus has since ceased, demonstrations are still going on.
Unfortunately, Belarus is not the only country where people have to fight for open and fair elections. According to the BBC, the controversial election in the Ivory Coast has already resulted in at least 35 people dying in demonstrations and conflicts surrounding it. These demonstrations have emerged as the current president was admitted to run a third time. The Ivory Coast has a two-term limit for the presidency. His first term was declared void by the supreme court and he was reelected with 94% of the votes. This is sadly not the first time either, as riots also followed after the last Ivorian election, where up to 3000 people died.
We should therefore consider ourselves very lucky to have a free and safe vote. And we should make use of it, otherwise, we will suffer the consequences. The German city of Dortmund made it into an article in the New York Times after a terrible voter turnout in the 2014 city council election. According to the city’s official website, not even 45% of the people eligible to vote did so. This major lack of votes led to a known Neo-Nazi being on the city council, a man who in the scene is called “SS-Sigi” and has a swastika tattooed on his arm. This was due to the fact that the votes for the extremist right-wing parties counted more in relation to the total turnout – they didn’t get more votes than the previous election.
In total, two extremist right-wing parties got a seat in the council each. Now you could argue that they only got 2 out of 93 seats and that this won’t cause a big impact – but this phenomenon is not unique for Dortmund. According to another article from the New York Times, not even half of the population between ages 18 and 29 voted in the presidential election in 2016. I don’t have to tell you how that turned out. Earlier this year, the Harvard Gazette wrote that the same age group could be decisive in the race between Trump and Biden. The voter turnout in this age group has been rising tremendously. A trend that was seen already in the 2018 election for Congress (and a third of the Senate) – and almost two weeks after the presidential election this year the Washington Post speaks of a “record turnout” of a projected 66.7%.
My points here are twofold. First, people all over the world are still struggling to get what we so often take for granted. Something that our ancestors fought hard for. So we should appreciate it. Second, our vote does matter and it does make a difference. Through voting, we ensure to be represented in our government, and thereby we can prevent misrepresentation. The only reason why a Neo-Nazi was voted into Dortmund’s city council was because of a lack of voters. There were not more votes for these extremist right-wing parties than in all the other elections, they simply counted for more because of the small number of total votes. It is therefore our uttermost responsibility as citizens to uphold this privilege and honour it, by participating with our votes.
Av Nele Popp
Illustration: Merle Daliah