Why we (don’t) Vote - Blueboard by Maria Elissa J. Lao

June 04, 2019

Political decision-making is usually the usual territory of those in power.  What electoral democracy affords us is a window of opportunity to improve status quo: to elect representatives who will protect our values, our political aspirations, and our hope for the future. It is the key feature of our political system.
Prior to the decision of who to vote for is the decision to actually vote.  It is a valuable one: to opt to wield what political power the slip of ballot paper (or in our case, the ½ cartolina sized roll) we hold on election day.  Voter turnout, according to International IDEA (2016) is “the extent to which eligible voters use their vote on election day” and what has additionally been noted by the same organization is the steady decline of voter turnout globally since the 1990s.   People vote for a myriad of reasons: (1) it is part of political culture (2) practical questions such as election day as a non working holiday, for example (3) a good electoral contest where there is no clear winner and any number of individual reasons there may be for going out and voting on election day.  In the Philippines, we do fairly well, voter turnout wise – with around 70-80% except for 2007.
The other side of that question, and equally important, is why people decide not to vote.  What keeps people away from the polls? International IDEA lists both socio economic and political factors that affect people’s decision to vote? I have chosen some of the findings from their 2016 report to highlight that may have some bearing on the Philippine situation: “(1) frequent movement from one place to another, on the other hand, may decrease people’s desire to engage in the political process. (2) economic adversity negatively affects political participation because economic hardship can result in voter apathy and lead people to withdraw from politics and focus on meeting their basic needs (3) the existence of individual registration requirements that must be fulfilled by the voter creates an additional burden for voters.”  There is also one individual factor, which affects voter turnout that stands out: International IDEA cites age as “one of the most important factors to affect voter turnout.”  It cites voter youth apathy as a primary source of concern in many countries.  Finally, it cautions that “some factors affect only certain groups of the population: women, minority groups, youth and so on” which makes the case for additional support for areas where access to both registration and polling areas may be difficult.  This includes the current work being done for Overseas Filipino Workers, older adults and differently abled.
However, this still leaves the question of the youth and whether or not they are voting – or even registering when they reach voting age? Here, I return to a study done by the Institute of Philippine Culture (IPC) in 2005. The “Vote of the Poor: Modernity and Tradition in People’s Views of Leadership and Elections” drives home the point that elections in the Philippines are complex contests of political survival that play out most vividly in local contests where people are intimately connected to their votes. Voters, including the poor and the youth, understand the value and role of elections in democratic society and exercise their individual agency in these contests.  They are not bystanders, but active players during election time.
However, some of that landscape has changed and virtual arenas have also opened up the electoral discourse.  Dr. Cristina Montiel and Joshua Uyheng’s recent work (2019) “Senatorial Poscript: Campaign talk, Predicting Winnability from FB likes and Other Big Data Analyses” with support from the IPC’s Merit Research Awards (MRA) Program uses data mined from facebook likes and comments to further understand the discourse built over the election period on the popular social media platform Facebook.
These virtual spaces are the areas which young voters (and digital natives) inhabit.  Understanding these spaces are a crucial link to understanding how elections can remain relevant to a new generation of voters and decision makers and ensuring that they continue to actually go out and vote.
Maria Elissa J. Lao is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Ateneo de Manila University where she is currently the Director of the Institute of Philippine Culture.