Michael D. Higgins was re-elected on Saturday as President of Ireland to a second 7-year term. In the election, 40% of the voting age population voted while the turnout of registered voters was 44%. President Higgins’ vote was 22.5% of the voting age population (VAP) based on the CSO’s (Central Statistics Office) estimate in 2018 of the 18+ population.
Last January in Finland where the ceremonial head of state is also popularly elected, the VAP rate was 67.5% and the incumbent Sauli Niinistö received 63% of the actual vote compared with Higgins’ 56%. The Finnish turnout of registered voters in its presidential election was 67% — a 23% turnout of registered voters above last Friday’s Irish election.
Ireland’s level of civic engagement has fallen in line with other countries and the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) finds that while voter turnout was initially lower in post-communist countries from the early 1990s, both established European democracies and post-communist countries have seen significant declines over the last several decades. However, the Nordic countries are outliers.
IDEA data show that in the 2011 Irish General Election, following the worst economic crash in a generation, the registered turnout rate rose 3% to 70% while the VAP rate was 64%. The VAP rate dipped to 58% in the 2016 general election while the turnout rate dropped to 65%. In 1948-2016 the peak Irish level was 85% in 1977. However, the older Irish VAP data used by IDEA are not reliable. The actual voter turnout out rate was 76% (still the highest in the period from 1948).
In Denmark, in its 2015 general election, the VAP turnout rate was over 80%. Since 1945 the peak for Danish participation was 88% in 1968 and the last time the Danish VAP was below 80% was in 1953 when it was 79%.
When Donald Trump could win the US presidency with the support of 25% of the US VAP while a momentous decision would be made by 33% of the British VAP to leave the European Union, the impact of the disengaged can be serious.
The United States has had a long history of low voter turnout — in the 18 presidential elections since 1948, there were 6 times when the percentage of the voting age population topped 60% and the record was 63% in 1960. In recent times Republican legislatures across the country have been introducing rules that suppress minority voting, based on the bogus claims of massive voter fraud, amplified in recent times by Trump.
In 2014, only 33% of the US VAP voted in that year’s midterm elections.
Why is Ireland’s level of civic engagement very low compared with Denmark’s despite the end of economic stagnation from the 1960s — while recognising the home-made economic disasters that were germinated in 1977-1981 and 2002-2007?
While voting at weekends would likely increase participation, the Irish statistics reveal that there is an underclass in the society that is commonly ignored by the better-off folk who have a grip on the public megaphone.
1) Despite the recovery, a proxy for material standard of living calculated by Eurostat showed that in 2017 the typical Irish standard of living was below Italy's and the EU average;
2) Among OECD advanced countries Ireland at 22.5% in 2017 was second to the United States, in the rich world, for the percentage of low pay workers, — defined as the share of workers earning less than two-thirds of median (mid-point where half of the population are above and half below) earnings. Average annual earnings per capita were €37,646 in 2017, up by 2.0% on 2016;
3) The Government reported earlier this year that only 35% of the private sector workforce has an occupational pension — one of the worst records in the rich world;
4) Given the precarious situation of rental tenure in Ireland, it should be noted that the homeownership rate has fallen to 67% — the lowest since 1971 — while according to Census 2016, the predominant tenure status in the urban towns and cities, rose from a share of 27% in 2006 to 36% in 2016;
5) According to Eurostat, 16% of the 20-34-year-old Irish population were NEETs in 2017 (not in employment, education or training;
6) Workplace training has long been a joke in Ireland even though it cost the Exchequer €1.7bn in 2016;
7) Ireland has one of the worst employer business startup rates in Europe, suggesting this route for young and old provides limited opportunities compared with other countries.
8) This year the employment rate for 15-64-year-olds in Ireland is almost 69%. It is 80% in Switzerland; 78% in New Zealand; 76% in Germany and 75% in both Denmark and the UK.
The OECD says in its Better Life Index that voter turnout for the top 20% of the Danish population is an estimated 88% and for the bottom 20% it is an estimated 84%, a much smaller gap than the OECD average gap of 13 percentage points, and suggests there is broad social inclusion in Denmark's democratic institutions.
The OECD says voter turnout for the top 20% of the Irish population is an estimated 69% and for the bottom 20%, it is an estimated 61%, "narrower than the OECD average gap of 13 percentage points and suggests there is broad social inclusion in Ireland's democratic institutions" — but still a big difference in turnout between.
As Switzerland has a tradition of referenda, participation in general elections tends to be low — the VAP rate in 2015 was 39% and the right-wing, anti-immigration Swiss People's Party (SVP) got a record 29.4% of the vote and became the biggest party.