On Oct. 29 the Hungarian Parliament accomplished long-standing plans of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and his conservative-right government: starting in 2014, when a make-or-break election will take place which could cement into power the current regime regardless of voter preference, only those who comply with a preliminary electoral registration process will retain their eligibility to vote.
The electorate in Hungary has already undergone disconcerting changes in the recent past: radicalization on the extreme right on the one hand and disenchantment and apathy on the other. More and more it is the case that the average voter – according to to opinion polls at least one half of the Hungarian electorate – is left uninspired both by the governing party’s and the current left opposition’s political platform.
The most important thing to know about the early voter registration requirement is that it is a solution to a problem that does not exist. At times the government made pale efforts to justify the idea within the framework of a democratic outlook on politics, holding up such champions of the right to vote as the Republican Party of the United States. At other times we’ve heard statements completely no longer bound by the need to keep up democratic appearances, with leading politicians of the governing party calling for the exclusion of various segments of the population from the democratic process and lesser political figures doing their best to stigmatize inactive voters as lazy, cash-hungry or ignorant.
Popular opinion and Hungarian politics seem to run in two completely different planes of reality. According to a poll cited by Reuters, 80 percent of Hungarians oppose the mandatory registration process, while 75% of them believe that it “infringes democratic principles.” The Hungarian government’s parliamentary super-majority nevertheless continues to act as if it were drawing on an unprecedented unity of voter support behind its constitutional remake of the country. To undo the measure passed yesterday will require a coalition of political parties with 2/3 of the seats in a future parliament: not only the mobilization of every eligible voter in 2014, but sustained efforts on the part of disenchanted voters to make their way through what is likely to become a treacherous bureaucratic hurdles separating them from the polls.
The last time the Contrarian Hungarian blog engaged with the extent of this threat to Hungarian democracy was more than a year ago, and unfortunately the argument still stands today, which is why it is being reposted today without any change. Note, however, that in the end the deadline to register was set at 15 days prior to the elections, and rumors were floated that those who register but don’t vote might be ineligible to vote in future elections. In addition, in response to the point that mandatory address reporting is incompatible with the mandatory pre-registration requirement to vote, the government appears to be ready to do away with the country’s mandatory address reporting. After all, the graver threat to democracy is clearly the former rather than the latter.
If one is to find one detail of the new Hungarian electoral law that the parliament is soon to pass that is being introduced solely for the sake of making it possible for the acting government to engage in electoral fraud, it is the requirement to register in advance to vote. To be precise, this idea is not yet in the text of the bill currently under review by the parliament’s various committees – if past practice is any indicator, details might not become available about the actual design of the system until shortly before or at the time of the actual vote.
This is a very wise PR move on the part of the government. It is hardly ever the case that a voter registration law is outrageous while it is entertained as an idea only. Without its details, such as how onerous and thorough an effort citizens would have to make in order to get registered, normally there is nothing strikingly objectionable about such proposals. Accordingly, all we know for now is that the deadline for registering one’s intention to vote in Hungary would be three months ahead of the elections. The rest of the particulars – who, where, how and upon the fulfillment of what requirements would collect the registration at what cost in time and effort to the citizenry – perhaps only those who have had personal dealings with Hungarian offices and government bureaucracy are able to properly envision.
In Hungary, everybody must carry a government-issued ID on their person at all times. The responsibility to assemble the electoral rolls has therefore always belonged to the state and administratively speaking there is just no reason to change voter registration into an individual responsibility. Voter registration in this way would not only be a completely unnecessary addition to the Hungarian electoral system, but also a frivolous waste of money and bureaucratic capacity. No reason, other than the farcical or the malicious, could establish its necessity.
I mention the malicious type of reasoning for voter registration because I am not the only one who thinks that this system could result in restricting the voting rights of a specific type of Hungarian voter. Many in Hungary go as far as demanding that it should. This argument was presented in detail recently on a popular Hungarian blog, Véleményvezér (Opinion Leader), which goes out of its way to “encourage the Hungarian government to include [voter registration] in its new electoral law” (in Hungarian here, abstract in English here). As the article makes the case for this:
“It has happened in Hungary numerous times that propertyless people in masses were brought to vote for 1000 HUFs [less than 5 dollars] or a bowl of soup. Let us not be naïve: the hesitation until the very last-minute is not typically due to having such high standards and sophistication that would make it impossible to find an adequate political program. Rather, we are talking about those who do not even know what is taking place in this country – and care very little about it at all.”
An outstandingly perceptive analysis of voter apathy – clearly the gravest problem in Hungary is that there are too many parties in the country that have mass appeal – but what is the solution? According to the author of the piece, one must prevent those “whose vote depends on today’s lunch or on how many goals their favorite team scored on Saturday” from voting, and trust instead the future of the country to the collective judgment of “regularly voting” citizens.
“Though it is not a perfect solution, what appears to be certain is that with the institution of an advance registration system, one would be able to filter out any voters whom the parties try to win over with entirely irresponsible promises, thereby pushing the country into debt.”
Not much explanation is needed to get the part that the advance registration system would “filter out” certain voters. Contingent upon the specifics of the legislation, it would likely impact those who did not make sure that their paperwork was in order by the deadline, those who did not have the time or the means to attend the place of registration, or lacked in personal commitment to do so, as well as those who, three months before the elections, suffer from voter apathy. From what we know about the proposal, it would also filter out those who moved during these three months and cannot travel to their previous locality to vote. But why should these voters be filtered out? What makes this a particularly laudable idea? Because
“[t]he advance registration system draws a reasonable line between those interested in public life as well as at least minimally active in and informed about politics on the one hand, and people who are fully indifferent toward public life but are all the more prone to manipulation on the other. If we do not want the Sunday rain to decide the outcome of the results, or politicians to make absurd campaign promises (or to campaign with promises) in their desperation, it would be worth considering this option,”
argues the author of the article.
The answer therefore is that the “reasonable line” of distinction would not run simply in between active voters and those who are disenfranchised by the advance registration system. It would be drawn between the “informed” and “politically active” voters and those so “fully indifferent toward public life” that they are “prone to manipulation.” The idea would be to weed out a certain kind of political persuasion from voting (on the basis that it is irrational), and the advance voter registration, far beyond a simple administrative measure, would be the means of achieving this political purpose.
Note that this is not the same as claiming, as one might hear from the right in other countries, that the voter registration system encourages civic participation, and that those who are “irresponsible” enough not to register to vote should forfeit their right to vote. Véleményvezér’s argument is about an entirely different kind of should. There is no emphasis here on the citizen education aspects of democracy – the exercise of voting is not seen as a means to empower others and to serve as motivation for their political participation. Quite to the contrary, the problem is that the masses are already too empowered and that their political participation, by definition destructive of democracy, must be curtailed. Or, as the author himself writes:
“Besides its numerous advantages, mass democracy is an extraordinarily dangerous invention, as evidenced by the example of the awful leaders, the practicing insane and even of dictators who obtained their power lawfully in democratic elections. Because there is no such thing in reality that the majority of the people would make a rational decision, equipped with thorough knowledge of public life, having considered every single electoral program and assessed many years of political performance.
What is the danger in all of this? Exactly what we have seen in our home country: that politicians can and will say things so preposterous, or that they will be use such methods that is going to bring these people to vote in the very last-minute.
One must add that the blog I am quoting, Véleményvezér (Opinion Leader) is not operated by the extreme right. In fact, it is a respected and respectable blog catering to the center-right intelligentsia of the country and it is particularly popular and influential among young Hungarian citizens. Though the blog often supports the policies of the current Hungarian government, typically it does not do so in an unreflecting or automatic manner. Rather, they draw their ideological aspiration from the conservative movement of the UK and the US (as do nowadays a number of similarly popular blogs, such as Konzervatórium and Jobbklikk).
The author of the opinion piece on Véleményvezér does in fact look to the US for verification (this is a phenomenon I am noting more and more in Hungarian politics: recently, Antal Rogán claimed that “in the United States of America and in several Western democracies regulations much harsher exist” for the criminalization of homelessness in Hungary). As he writes, one may be prepared against the inevitable dangers of a “mass democracy” “[f]or example if, similarly as is the case in the United States, we connect the right to vote to advance registration – in other words, by requiring voters to declare a few months in advance whether he or she wishes to exercise his or her right to vote.”
While it is true that the US has a pesky problem of right-wing politicians trying to create various types of nuisances to the citizens in order to refashion the electorate to closer match their political base, characteristically these initiatives take place in states where the tea party movement (who are not exactly the champions of rationality nor the enemies of demagoguery) is popular. But speaking more directly to the idea that Hungary has reason to adopt the US voter registration system because it is so integral to their democracy: laws requiring voter registration are controversial in the US, precisely because they lead to a lower turnout. For this reason they are seen as anti-democratic in their motivation.
The US and Hungary are a particularly bad match for comparison, because the US is unique among democratic countries regarding its voter registration laws. Formulating electoral law in the US is the right of the states, and very little can be understood about the difficulties to which this leads without knowing the significance of state rights in the American political system. What is certain, however, is that nine states in the US do not require advance registration at all, while another six allow for registration on election day. Without a federal voter registry, an active registration system is practically a necessity, especially in view of popular mobility across state lines. But even some of those among states with stricter advance registration laws (these set a deadline 15-30 days ahead of the day of the election) allow for same day registration if one is already registered to vote in the same state.
The idea, overall, is to make voting as easy as possible – despite the voter registration system. Indeed, many citizens make use of the same-day registration option for reasons of convenience (e.g. because a certain polling station is on one’s way to work) and radio reports sometimes assist voters to find the polling places with the shortest lines. Any intentional design in the electoral law to “filter out” voters of a specific profile is watched closely by civil rights activists, because proof of such intent is not only reproachable but also unconstitutional, on more than one grounds.
There are other basic tenets of what democracy is and how it is supposed to work that are missing from the version of conservatism that William F. Buckley’s Hungarian followers have come to adopt on Véleményvezér. To simplify this view quite considerably, mass democracies tend to correct their excesses over time. The collective wisdom of the system is due to its ability to match the political system of a society to its evolving views. It could not be guaranteed by the smarts or rationality of voters – nobody is assumed to be as perfect in their knowledge as the guardians of the philosopher king in Plato’s Republic.
Discrimination, disenfranchisement and anything that contributes to lower rates of participation are therefore seen as graver threats to the functioning of democracy than the loss of one or two elections: for as long as the politicians are responsible enough to marginalize any political sentiment that is harmful to the system as a whole, though a particular party was defeated, democracy at least prevails. When it comes to laying the blame, one typically attributes it to the politicians who tempted “the people” with their demagoguery, or the educated classes who failed to share their wisdom with “the lesser informed” – before going into the effort to design an apparatus for disenfranchising “the masses.” A system of checks and balances built into the constitution guarantees the return of sanity even upon the worst choices “by the masses.” This ensures that no matter who gets elected, incorrect decisions may be corrected, and that a one-time electoral victory does not result in one person’s rule over the life and death of his citizenry until he is forcibly removed by a revolution.
It seems that the author of Véleményvezér does not only reject the principle of democracy outrightly (as quoted already: “there is no such thing in reality that the majority of the people would make a rational decision, equipped with thorough knowledge of public life, having considered every single electoral program and assessed many years of political performance”) but is unsympathetic even to these broad-stokes philosophical characterizations of what one might call a democratic society. What is missing from the argument in particular is a proper understanding of the role of elections in a democratic system. Véleményvezér’s proposal would reduce this important element of democracy to a mere headcount. It advocates that voting right should be reserved for only those with a history of “regular voting,” and the more ingrained the political attitudes are of these voters – the more they derive from a “thorough knowledge” of the public life of the country – the better. The real enemy seems to be the betrayal of party loyalty, or any challenge undermining the voters’ dogmatic clinging to one “truth” or another.
Too bad, because democracy is never merely just an exercise in dropping a ballot into a paper box. When done properly, the rewards of public participation are felt both at the personal and the intellectual level. To be able to convince others in a political debate is empowering, and yet it is impossible to convince another without humility, without expecting to learn something from the other’s point of view in the process. It is for this reason that democratic countries which are not democratic in name only draw from an intellectual tradition which describes their system as participatory, deliberative or communicative democracies.
Suffice it to say, no longer about democracy, but about the voter registration system currently under discussion in Hungary, that it is based on a similar misunderstanding of what is democratic about a democracy. “Naturally, the guardians of democracy on call will sound the alarms,” anticipates the author of the article almost as soon as he first states his support for this proposal. You bet we will. This advance voter registration is a travesty. It is an expensive exercise in unnecessary bureaucracy, and an opportunity presented on a silver tray to any acting government for electoral fraud.