This Sunday, 8 October, Belgium goes to the polls for its local elections. I will be voting to. Non-Belgian EU citizens have enjoyed this right for quite a while now. Those from outside the EU are eligible to vote for the first time in local elections, however.
The official figures show that 20.05% of the non-Belgians eligible to vote have actually enrolled to do so. Of the 529.878 EU citizens here, the figure is 20.94%. For the 108.617 officially known non-EU citizens, the figure is 15.71%.
So are you going to vote? And if not why not? There is no excuse for failing to exercise your democratic right. Or is there? A quick review of some of the options available for organising elections and ensuring turnout, suggests that yet again the Belgians have not made it simple.
Scenario 1 - no enrol + obligation to vote - is being obliged to vote, what is called stemplicht in Belgium. Without having to enrol in the register beforehand, citizens have the right but also the obligation to vote. This is what applies for all Belgian citizens in all elections. It is the system that leads to the highest participation (over 90%).
A second scenario - no enrol + no obligation - is that without having to enrol in the register beforehand, citizens have the right to vote but no obligation to do so. In the Netherlands this is the system in operation for both Dutch and foreign citizens (for local elections). It led to a participation rate of 58% of Dutch citizens and 41% of foreigners in the Netherlands at the local elections in March 2006.
A third scenario - enrol + no obligation - is one in which you specifically have to enrol in the electoral register in advance but this does not oblige you to turn up on the day to cast your vote. This is the way it works in the US, where participation stretches from 5% to 30% depending on the state. In very few districts are non US citizens allowed to vote. Where they are – for example in the district of New York – enrolment rates barely reach 3%.
The fourth and final scenario - enrol + obligation - is that of having to enrol in the electoral register in advance and then once you do being obliged to turn up on the day to vote. This is the system which is least likely to tempt non-nationals to vote. Obviously it is the system that the Belgians have opted for.
Why did I bother?