Why Many ‘Meh’ During Constitutional Referendum in Egypt?
Unofficial vote tallies in Egypt’s constitutional referendum indicate a 32% (8.3 out of 26 million) voter turnout in the most populous Arab state. While still awaiting polling in other governorates on Dec. 22, the ‘Yes’ vote advocated by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists is reportedly leading at 57%.
There are over 50 million registered voters in Egypt.
A major opposition group, the ‘National Salvation Front,’ stated Sunday it does not accept these preliminary results. But quite naturally those in opposition to the constitution and President Morsi (myself included) will attack the legitimacy of both, evidenced by low turnout.
But the low vote count prompts me to step back from the many moral arguments surrounding Egypt’s transitional phase to think critically about electoral participation.
I understand people to participate in elections because of their idealism, which in Egypt’s case would mean that voters felt strongly for or against the constitution[the second man interviewed in the video below]. This is often coupled with the idea that citizens have a moral responsibility to vote [the first woman interviewed in the video below]. And lastly I understand some voters do so out of self-interest, seeking to personally profit from a particular electoral outcome.
This is all well and good but it’s infinitely more interesting to understand why people do not participate. It would not surprise me if the Islamist coterie argued non-participation was a sign of contentment with the situation they control. But we also understand non-participation possibly evidencing apathy and alienation, in other words people don’t know much about politics and don’t care what happens or that people in power do not listen to them anyway.
Along with these attitudes on participation are more pragmatic considerations, the act itself can be made difficult by restrictions on where and when people can vote and lack of public knowledge about said restrictions, identification document and prior registration requirements, intimidation and violence.
There also exists a theoretical ‘Paradox of Participation,’ developed by academics using a rational choice model borrowed from economics. Because participation by a single voter will not affect the outcome, and because voting requires time and energy, it is irrational to participate; but because people obviously do participate there is an apparent paradox.
Laboratory experimentation indicates voters have ‘cutpoints,’ where the cost of participating becomes too high and that cutpoints are affected by certain information. A particularly interesting outcome of experimentation is the “competition effect” which predicts turnout is higher in elections that are expected to be close. If many Egyptians believed the constitution would be approved, the inverse rationale of the competition effect would predict a low level of participation.
From way over here in Beirut I don’t have much sense of the people so this may not help explain the low turnout in Egypt. But it appeared to me most were expecting the constitution to be approved based on the successful election of President Morsi and the Islamist candidates in the parliamentary elections.
Furthermore, by reporting the results of the voting yesterday, the second round voters on December 22 will have an even lower cutpoint, and probably decreasing participation relative to what it would have been if held on Saturday during round one.
There are other theories related to cutpoints, read about the size effect and the underdog effect affirmed by the experiment that I’m referencing here. If you did not participate, please comment or vote in the poll!