Global headlines from CNN, The Washington Post, BBC, and The New Yorker have announced that Colombia rejected peace accords with the FARC in the recent, October 2, referendum. But who exactly voted “No?” And what Colombia are they referring to?
As it turns out, the Colombia in question is only a sliver of the country as a whole. Only eighteen percent of the electorate went to the polls on October 2nd and voted “No” to the accords. Another eighteen percent—though slightly less—voted for the “Yes” position. Discounting nullified ballots, that means that less than a sixth of the entire nation voted for the winning position, and more than half the country didn’t vote at all.
In truth, the story isn’t much different in the United States. According to The New York Times, only fourteen percent of the eligible public voted for Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump in the primaries. That means just nine percent of the entire nation selected our presidential candidates.
According to the Times’ analysis, half of those who voted in the presidential primaries did so for other candidates. But that still leaves a huge chunk, over seventy percent of the electorate, that didn’t come to the polls at all. How can we move forward with the so-called “will of the people” when the people aren’t voting?
There are a variety of reasons that explain why only a few people leave their houses to cast their ballot. In the Colombian case, some analysts have argued that heavy rainstorms on the day of the plebiscite may have dampened voter turnout. In the U.S. long lines at the polls and a general lack of interest in the issues are often cited as well. Low turnout may also signal that voters are dissatisfied with the available options, especially in elections where the major candidates or issues have low acceptance rates. This appears to be the case in both the U.S. primary elections and the Colombian plebiscite.
In the end, regardless of voter turnout, victorious candidates and supporters consider that elections give them a social mandate to advance their platform. The same holds even truer in a referendum, where voters are provided a dichotomous option between accepting or rejecting a sole course of action for the country. According to Amanda Taub and Max Fisher in the New York Times last week, “Referendums are often intended to put a stamp of popular legitimacy on something leaders have already decided to do.” If voter turnout is low, a referendum can end up “deepening political disputes rather than bridging them.”
While Colombia’s plebiscite had a minimum required voter turnout, the bar was set low—at only thirteen percent. As a result of the small margin of victory of the “No” vote, former president Alvaro Uribe’s party, which led the campaign against the peace accords, now has a voice in the re-negotiation process. But given the vitriol leveled by the “No” leaders against the accord and the commitment of President Santos and the FARC to the original agreement, it is unclear how much give and take there will be between Uribe’s party and the former negotiators. Meanwhile, the country remains divided and the peace process is in a state of limbo.
To call these plebiscite results the “will of the people” is further complicated by another often silent, but influential sector of the population: youth under the legal voting age. Although their voices are not counted in votes, youth opinions have the potential to affect voting outcomes. At the same time, involving youth in the political process in concrete ways may lead to increased rates of voter turnout in the future.
Working closely with the University of Chicago and Fundación Ideas para la Paz, we conducted interviews this past summer in the state of Cundinamarca (where the capital, Bogotá, is located) with youth between the ages of fifteen and eighteen to gauge their thoughts on the Colombian peace process. Many of them viewed the accords as an opportunity for Colombia to live up to its full potential. They foresaw the government shifting funds from the military to education and health, and many—even those who were the sons and daughters of victims—believed that forgiveness and reconciliation with the FARC could be possible. Others had internalized the arguments made by the “No” campaign. They opposed the idea that the government was going to pay the demobilized FARC soldiers. But more important, they feared that the government was handing the country over to the FARC, and that the peace process would ultimately lead to a downward spiral that could lead to a situation similar to Venezuela. A third, smaller group, citing the country’s history of government mismanagement and corruption, wanted to support the accords, but they didn’t believe that the FARC or the government would follow through with their commitments.
In general, youth in Bogotá were divided over the peace accords, with only a slight majority in favor. This stood in stark contrast to national polls at the time, which incorrectly showed the “Yes” vote winning by a landslide. Had the youth been consulted in any significant manner on the issue, their opinions may have contributed to predictions of a closer election. At the very least, youth would have had the opportunity to demonstrate the nuance of their opinions regarding in an important moment in the country’s history.
Along that vein, it’s important to note that concerted efforts by government and civil society to involve youth in the political process could help boost rates of voter turnout in the future. If those under the age of eighteen sense that their voices are heard—through surveys, public forums, or symbolic votes—they may be more likely to reach adulthood as active citizens. Our research found that many adolescents were frustrated with a perceived lack of channels to express their political opinions, especially to policymakers. This sense of alienation among adolescents is common in both the U.S. and Colombia, and it contributes to youth ambivalence towards the political process, which is likely to carry over into adulthood.
As Colombia moves beyond the plebiscite vote and renegotiations are carried out, the most important takeaway is to remember that a majority of Colombian citizens—young and old, for and against—were not represented in the plebiscite. How can this “silent majority” be given a voice? If we want our democracies to function as such, then we have a duty to incorporate all voices in meaningful ways.
First, referendums should have a higher minimum required percentage of votes in order to be legitimate tools of choice. If, as Fisher and Taub say, a referendum forces voters “to distill difficult policy choices down to a simple yes or no, and predict the outcome of decisions so complex that even experts might spend years struggling to understand them,” then the choice between the “Yes” or “No” cannot ride on a mere forty percent of the electorate. We must make sure that at least half of the electorate is represented in such decisions, or otherwise nullify the results.
As for general elections, we need to reduce barriers to get people to the polls. Voter registration and renewal, both of which are voluntary processes, should be done automatically for all who are eligible. Voting is a fundamental right shared by all citizens. It should not be a choice to register for that right, but rather a choice to exercise it at the polls. The government should also consider making large elections a national holiday. This would make it easier for those who work to vote. At the very least, the government should assist businesses in making it easier for employees to vote on Election Day.
For those who are dissatisfied with their voting options, they are better off heading to the polls and filling out blank ballots, rather than not voting at all. In the end, there is no way to distinguish between non-voters expressing disdain for their options, and non-voters who can’t make it to the polls, or who don’t find the issues important. If dissatisfied voters want their dissatisfaction to count, then they need to vote.
Finally, we need civil society and government to provide forums and symbolic votes for youth, with publishable results, if we are to foster a sense of active political participation among our citizens.
We must show the “silent majority” that their voice matters, and that it can change the course of history. Only in this way will the people have truly spoken.
Gabriel Velez is pursuing a Ph.D. in Comparative Human Development from the University of Chicago. He recently worked with Fundación Ideas para la Paz in Bogotá, Colombia, where he conducted a citywide study on adolescent understandings of the peace process.
Atticus Ballesteros is a student of Anthropology at the University of Chicago. He spent the past summer in Bogotá conducting university-sponsored research on peace and reconciliatory institutions across the city.