In contrast to the democratic principle that all adults should enjoy the right to vote, which is now a global norm, nonvoting has escaped any sort of historical closure. Millions of electors have always failed to vote, whether under conditions of limited, mass, or fully universal suffrage—and, in most Western states, electoral abstention is now at record levels. Yet despite its long-standing status as a popular phenomenon, nonvoting has received scant attention from historians of democracy. In this article we begin the task of rehabilitating nonvoting as a significant historical variable by analyzing how the problem has evolved in two major European states, Britain and France, from the mid-nineteenth century up to the present. The argument is twofold. The first aspect is that nonvoting is a composite phenomenon, one whose shifting public profile and capacity to provoke alarm has always been determined by the interaction of multiple elements, chief among them conceptions of citizenship and electoral representation. The second aspect is that in both countries nonvoting has provoked a variety of competing appraisals regarding the precise problem it poses, prompting debate about the extent to which it should be tolerated, and what, if anything, should be done about it, including making voting compulsory. We conclude by arguing that the history of nonvoting suggests that the process of democratization has been marked throughout by an inability to resolve the relationship between representative ideals of electoral legitimacy and the rights and duties of those equipped with the franchise.
Crook, MalcolmCrook, Tom
Department of History, Philosophy and Culture
Year of publication: 2021Date of RADAR deposit: 2020-09-07
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