When it comes time to move a hundred or more milk cows to a new pasture here in the countryside, ranchers put up a temporary electric fence along the road to keep the girls on course. A single slender strand of wire, threaded through insulated stakes and given a slight electrical charge, is just enough to steer big wet noses along their cobbled path.
The domestic bovine, which many consider to be the dumbest animal on the planet, goes where it is told and knows only that its singular mission in life is to eat nonstop until its last breath. The cow seems unaware of its powerful half-ton bulk. Whether herded by cowpokes on horseback or by more contemporary means, it is the very model of docile servitude. In thousands of years, probably no single cow has ever been accused of showing initiative.
In an authoritarian state, you might say, cows would possess the character of the perfect voter. Well, they might never actually vote, but they’d certainly never vote “no.”
All governments find ways to shepherd their citizens along the right communal path, some more successfully than others. Some employ persuasion; others lean just slightly toward the electric fence model.
Expats who decide to live in Ecuador come across some interesting methods of official herding after a time. In fact, one of the most effective has to do with voting.
Ecuadorians are eligible to vote in elections beginning at age 16. But between the ages of 18 and 65, it’s required. An excuse is fairly easy to get, but without it, non-voters face a fine. This year the fine would be $44.60. That’s serious money in a country where the minimum wage is $366 a month.
Catching violators is tricky, as the sin is one of omission. But there are ways. All manner of transactions require proof of voting in the last election, no matter how unrelated the matter at hand may be. That’s what I was told, for example, when I got a driver’s license.
“But I didn’t vote,” I told the clerk. (Voting is optional for foreigners.)
“Then you need to prove you didn’t vote,” she said. There’s an office for that in the provincial capital, where I was quickly issued a card (no charge) showing I hadn’t voted but was excused.
Imagine what a different result this vote-or-else rule would have produced in the recent plebiscite on Colombia’s proposed peace treaty with the FARC guerrillas. Polls predicted approval by nearly two to one, to end more than half a century of brutal, murderous armed conflict that killed at least a quarter of a million people. Instead, the proposal was defeated by a slender margin.
Spanish journalist Martín Caparrós said bluntly that the result is proof that democracy doesn’t work. That’s because, while the outcome was very close, it was really decided by the 60 percent of Colombians who chose not to vote at all.
There are historic examples worldwide where citizens have fought for the right to vote and won, and then gradually lost interest in it, perhaps believing their vote was unimportant. “But inevitably,” Caparrós writes, “little by little, they will start looking for ways in which they can exert influence. From what we see, democracy is not one of those ways.”
Beyond whipping up the electorate with shrill, unfounded denunciations of a “rigged” US election, the business of voting is often not a pretty sight. Democrats work to register new voters, since it’s the right thing to do, but also because new voters from swelling minority populations tend to lean Democratic. Republicans fight it for the same reason, sponsoring voter ID laws that suppress voting in a phony crusade to prevent voter fraud that has repeatedly been shown to be “virtually nonexistent.” (It ranks about the same as alien abductions.)
In Colombia, disappointed treaty supporters immediately cited the parallel case of the Brexit vote, and the way things are going in our own presidential election, it’s hard not to wonder what new shocks are around the corner.
If anything is rigged, it’s the colossal case of gerrymandering that gave Republicans control of Congress for years to come.
So much is being said that is simply not true, and so many people are buying it. So little of it has anything remotely to do with critically important issues like war and peace, poverty, immigration, and climate change.
Thomas Jefferson cautioned that a civilized nation cannot be both ignorant and free. The cows may be a warning.
I for one mailed my absentee ballot last week. There are no fines for failure to vote, but there could be worse things than the tingly touch of a slightly electrified fence.