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A Democratic Model to Emulate

Why did Abstention Win in Venezuela?

With an abstention of close to 7,200,000 voters (45%), and the extremely narrow margin between the YES and NO (CNE has accounted for 4 million 504 thousand 354 votes (50.70%) in favour of NO, and 4 million 379 thousand 392 votes for the YES, which represents 49.29%), the reading is that the worst-case scenario: a tie with a catastrophic high abstention, was not only the most probable event but the actual one.

Prior to the recent referendum in Venezuela, most U.S. media was predicting the emergence of a dictator. The potential removal of presidential term limits caused an uproar with CNN proclaiming Chavez would be dictator for life.

We, now know, of course, that both referendums failed. What I found interesting is the after thought analysis on voter abstention. There has been talk about who these abstainers were, why they abstained, and what it means for Venezuelan democracy.

It is interesting to compare this to so called American democracy. Our so called abstainers might be best referred to as the forgotten ones. The American political elite would rather talk of registered voters, or likely voters. The political myth in American electoral folklore is those that stayed home are defacto votes for the status quot. We may even hear a conservative cynic or two suggest, “Do we really want everyone to vote.”

Our politics seems more motivated by increasing than decreasing the abstention rate. This voter suppression is used by both Democrats and Republicans. By far the biggest form of voter suppression in 2004 was the Democratic Party’s continual assault on the legitimate, democratic participation of Ralph Nader. If the Democrats spent a fraction of their energy attacking George Bush as they did head hunting Ralph Nader there is no doubt in my mind Kerry would be president today.

Many of our largest cities have up to a 90% voter abstention rate. In 2006, Milwaukee County had a 82% abstention rate if we take all potential voters.  It seems to me we should take a few lessons from Chavez on how democracy should operate. We should be asking why on a good year over half of potential voters abstain. Our analysis should at least entertain the notion these voters find the Democrats and Republicans are an unworthy alternative.