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Wanted: An Extra 20 Million U.S. Voters

Does Indonesia's high voter turnout make it the world's second-largest democracy?

September 24, 2004

Does Indonesia's high voter turnout make it the world's second-largest democracy?

For all the worries about jobs, the fate of the U.S. manufacturing industry and outsourcing of blue and white-collar jobs, there is one dimension where the United States is even prouder of its heritage than its economic leadership.

For over 200 years, the United States has been the world's preeminent democracy.

Given Americans' justified pride in having the world's oldest democracy, it is hard enough for most of them to fathom that they are not the world's largest democracy. That status belongs to India, with its over one billion people.

Unfortunately, the saga does not end there. As if to add insult to injury, it is now becoming apparent that the United States has effectively lost its status as the world's second-largest democracy. How so?

When it comes to assessing the size of a democracy, the total size of the population is not what really matters. Rather, it is the number of voters who actually participate in the elections — and thus exercise the most basic form of democratic engagement, their right to vote.

Here are the numbers: In terms of the "raw" measure — the total size of the population — the United States continues to rank second after India among the world's democracies, with about 293 million people. Indonesia ranks third, with a population of 238 million — about 23% smaller than the U.S. population.

But for the real measure of the size of a democracy, one looks at voter totals. And there, the relationship is reversed.

In the first round of Indonesia's presidential elections in July 2004, 124 million people — equal to 80% of Indonesia's 155 million registered voters — cast their vote. Nearly as many people returned to the polls for the final round of elections on September 20th — 76.1% of registered voters, or 118 million people.

That high rate of turnout in itself is an amazing feat, given the challenges of holding elections in a country that stretches across 14,000 separate islands.

In contrast, in the 2000 U.S. presidential elections, a total of 105 million voters participated. That equals only 67.5% of registered voters — and only 51.3% of eligible voters.

In other words, almost 20 million more Indonesians voted in their country's last elections than Americans — even though the United States has 55 million more people.

In addition, 37% of Indonesia's people are under the age of 18, compared to 25% in the United States — which means that Indonesia's pool of potential voters is even smaller compared to that of the United States than the overall population figures would suggest.

Defenders of the status quo in the United States are quick to argue that voter participation is irrelevant — as long as people generally have the right to vote. If they choose not to exercise that right, don't force them. It's up to them whether they want to participate or not.

But that view is getting things backwards. Non-participation is a sign of alienation or indifference — or both. Neither condition is healthy for the substance and durability of a democracy.

Of course, the further trouble with this argument is that a disproportionately large number of people from lower income groups are staying away from the polls.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau underscore this point quite dramatically.

In the 2000 U.S. presidential election, the voting rate among people living in families with annual incomes of $50,000 or more was 72% — compared with 38% for people living in families with incomes under $10,000.

But if one economically fragile group tunes out and does not exercise its right to vote, the representative character of U.S. democracy can quickly be hollowed out. For all these reasons, it is fair to view Indonesia — not the United States — as the world's second-largest democracy.

And the implications of this changed hierarchy are more far-reaching than one might think. India, the world's largest democracy, is predominantly Hindu, while Indonesia — now the second-largest — is over 90% Muslim. The United States — a majority Christian nation — now ranks only third.

This, among other things, is a powerful symbol that shows the great democratic potential of all religions and cultures, even though not (yet) of those in the Middle East.

What lesson are global observers to take from all this? Rather than high-horsing democracy as its highest gift to humankind, the United States would be well advised to act more humbly — and focus on efforts to revitalize its democracy by encouraging better voter participation at home.

Unless there is a surprisingly high turnout in the November 2004 elections — which everybody should wish for given the socio-economic imbalance reflected in past years' voter participation data — the United States had better brace itself for challenges to its self-perceived democratic purity.

What is needed to beat Indonesia's numbers is that at least 20 million more U.S. voters go to the polls than in the 2000 elections. Simply getting more registered U.S. voters to turn out might do the trick.

If, as in Indonesia, 80% of registered U.S. voters were to turn out — rather than 67.5% as in the 2000 elections — this would boost the total number of U.S. voters from 105 million to about 124 million (based on 2000 voter turnout). That would be about the same number of people as voted in Indonesia's last election.

But as it stands, the United States has lost quite a bit of its "shining city on a hill" aura. Already, commentators in countries such as Brazil and India have mocked the United States for its seeming inability to hold free, reliable and fraud-free elections.

If that is not shocking enough to induce U.S. election officials and politicians to improve the U.S. electoral system in such a manner that it achieve at least participation levels as in Venezuela, Brazil and Indonesia, one wonders what will.

Holding oneself as incomparable and above the rest of the world certainly does have its distinct disadvantages — even at home.