04 May 2007

Voting: why and how

Matt asks whether (and if so, why, I presume) I vote, given the appalling choice of candidates and the fact that politics seems to go on as usual no matter what.

Just to clarify: in Argentina, voting is compulsory between the ages of 18 and 70, and optional above that. You're exempt from voting if you're sick or more than 500 km away from your legal address, but you must prove it — with a doctor's certificate in the former case, or with a certificate issued by a local police station in the latter. Convicts and public servants in essential places don't vote.

So if you're staying where your DNI (National Identity Document) says, and your health is OK, you just have to check where you vote. The government issues lists; these are displayed in certain public places, and many local party groups also set up desks on sidewalks where you can consult the lists. They're also available on the web, of course. Regardless, of course, many people don't bother to check until the very day of the election. Typically, you vote in a school in your neighbourhood. The polls open at 8 AM and close at 6 PM.

Once you're there you need to find which mesa (table) you belong to. A "table" is a physical desk with a vote box (a cardboard box with an opening for an envelope; in Spanish, urna... ominously the same word used for the container of dead person's ashes), staffed by a president and a vice president (common citizens, appointed by the government — yours truly served as one once) plus a number of watchers (fiscales) sent by the parties. You hand the authorities your DNI, they check everything's fine, and they give you a signed envelope. You go into the "dark room" and find yourself alone surrounded by piles of ballots. You choose the ones you want, tuck them into the envelope, and then get out and insert the envelope into the vote box. The table president returns your DNI, with a stamped mark, and off you go.

Now this is all compulsory, so how do you choose not to vote for any of those corrupt politicians? Well, you can vote en blanco (blank). A blank vote is the envelope with nothing in it. Since your vote is secret (and making it public during the election is a minor offense), you have to get into the dark room, spend some time there, and then come out again with your empty envelope.

You can also make your ballot void. A ballot is voided by the table authorities when it's torn or has marks or is defaced in any way. A vote is also void if something other than the ballot, or two ballots of different parties for the same post (i.e. mutually exclusive) are found inside the envelope. So some people write over the ballot, or substitute letters with insults, or return a ballot in pieces.

The phenomenon of intentionally voided ballots is called voto bronca, i.e. "anger vote", and it's common in times of public discontent, supposedly as a message to the political establishment, though politicians never seem to get it.

Many people have the completely unsubstantiated belief that "blank votes go to the victor", so this also contributes to intentional ballot spoiling. Depending on the situation, of course, it may be advantageous for a given candidate that many people vote blank. There's an important difference between a blank vote and a void vote — blank votes are correctly counted as votes for no party, while void votes are excluded from the count. This can influence the outcome of a legislative election where seats are assigned by proportional representation, and also the outcome of the first round of a presidential election.

I'm part of a generation of citizens who have voted on every election whenever they had the right and the obligation to do so. This is true of everyone born after 1965 (more or less), since those who turned 18 before 1983 missed at least one election while the country was under military rule — which has been on and off always since the 1930s.

I voted for the first time in 1995, and every two years since. I don't spoil the ballot, and so far I've never voted blank. I still feel a faint solemn satisfaction at fulfilling this right and obligation of mine, even while also feeling a bit stupid (or horrified) afterwards. I believe one doesn't have the right to complain about a process if one doesn't participate in it.

So when's the next election? The provinces and the country as a whole elect their authorities independently, even if the general rule is that both elections are typically held on the same day. That's been changed this time. Santa Fe has a new law mandating "simultaneous compulsory primary elections", that is, every party must present their candidate lists and we must go and vote. That's scheduled for 1 July. Then there's the main provincial election (for governor and vice governor, provincial legislators, and municipal authorities where applicable, choosing from the candidates selected in the primaries), on 9 September. And then the national election, sometime in October. I've never voted three times in the same year... My DNI is going to be stamped all over!


  1. Pablo -
    Why can't military personnel vote? It seems odd that you are in the service of your country but are disenfranchised.

    Are there no provisions for absentee voting - when you have to be outisde your registration area (or even the country) on polling day? Or you might be hospitalized, or too infirm to get to a polling station. It seems that most democracies have provision for this, where voters can request a ballot before the election and return it by mail to be counted with the manually cast votes.


  2. Pablo, I share your feelings about voting. It never crossed my mind the possibility of not voting or spoiling my vote or voting blank. I feel very glad, proud and solemn too when I vote. Even couragiuos. Maybe because I remember when I wasn´t aloud to express my opinion, not so long ago, 1976 to 1983.

    The 8871 law (known as "Ley Sáenz Peña") guaranteed our free right to vote without any intimidation or fraud. (Well, guaranteed is a kind of extreme word... and for women was only until 1951...)
    By the way, the first time the Saenz Peña law took place at urnas was in 1912 in Santa Fe (not bad Rosarino, eh?) and in Buenos Aires.

    There is a provision for voting overseas. Not through absentee ballots but from actual urnas placed in any Argentine consulate/embassy abroad. The whole process of counting votes is done there too and any argentine citizen is aloud to go.
    I have exercised my right even while living abroad.

    Great post Pablo!

  3. Pablo –
    I was doing some more reading about Argentine national elections and saw that the military is responsible for the security and integrity of the elections. This seems very strange to me (in comparison with the other countries I have lived in), and especially given Argentina’s troubled past with the military. Is this the reason that military personnel can’t vote?

    99 –
    Thanks for the information about overseas balloting in consulates. I must admit that I still find it unusual that no provision is made for absentee balloting, given that voting is compulsory. I think only the US has three consulates, and every other country has at most one. Thus for many Argentine citizens abroad it would be virtually impossible to vote. I’ve read that more than 10% of the population lives abroad (with more than 300,000 having left since 2001).

    I believe that Argentine women were given the right to vote in 1947. I’m always amazed that so many countries denied voting rights to women or minorities until recently. But I guess that it’s one of those things that is difficult to change since if you can’t vote …

    I am a New Zealand citizen, and for me universal suffrage always seemed a basic civil right (all New Zealanders got the right to vote in 1893). I can request national voting papers from any local consulate and exercise my right to vote – although it is not compulsory.


  4. John, I've rechecked and it seems the military do vote. At least neither the Constitution nor the National Electoral Code say anything about them. This is very strange, since I was sure I'd seen this written somewhere, and so was my brother. Maybe I was remembering some old article of the Code which was modified later.

    I suppose military personnel must have a number of valid reasons to be exempted (not forbidden) from voting, e.g. when they're stationed far away from their legal residence.

    Argentina gave the right to vote to all male residents, including immigrants in many places, in the 19th century as well, but it was a clean system. And yes, women only got to vote after Eva Perón's support in 1947.

  5. I believe that millitary personnal do not vote because they are quartered (to avoid temptation, I guess); and the military in charge of preserving the "quietness" of voting do not vote to preserve their prescindence -- although somewhere I heard that they vote before the opening of polling stations along with the table authorities.

    I share your attitude towards voting, I think that compulsory voting is the best system. The only time I didn't vote was 2005, when my adress change (Buenos Aires to Rosario) hadn't "kick in" yet and I was still issued to vote there. I asked the Interior Ministry if I had to travel to Bs.As. specially to vote and they said: "yes" because it was less than 500km. Of course, I didn't went...



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