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A unique survey to assist the debate about and the fight against increasing absenteeism at elections

The Centre for the Study of Political Life of ULB (Cevipol), VUB/Vakgroep Politieke Wetenschappen (POLI) and the itsme identity app announce a new study

Every 4 to 5 years, at least, the vast majority of observers of public and institutional life in Belgium ponder the growing level of “absenteeism” among Belgian citizens in the voting booth for local, regional, federal and European elections.

itsme has also asked itself the same question. itsme is the online identity app used by already more than 40% of the Belgians for online identification, for the confirmation of transactions and for qualified digital signatures. In this context itsme is also the recognised and popular access key to online services of the government. The link with online voting is easy: this could become one of the ways to stop absenteeism.

That’s why itsme, the Centre d’Etude de la Vie Politique (Cevipol/ULB) and the Vakgroep Politieke Wetenschappen (POLI/VUB) decided to conduct a survey on this topic. Under the direction of Professor Jean-Benoit Pilet, the results of this survey will be published on 13th October 2021, which is exactly 3 years to the day before the next round of local and provincial elections.

The background

At the last elections, in 2019, no fewer than 1,400,000 citizens of voting age failed to cast their vote – i.e. 17% of the population invited to vote for their elected members. If all of these voters got together to form their own party, they would be more powerful than any other democratic party in Belgium. “They” would be the citizens who did not cast a valid vote on election day. For some of them, it was about an error in the way they filled out their ballot paper (invalid vote) or some practical concern (maybe a problem to do with their health, a work obligation, travelling, etc.) that prevented them from getting to the polling station. But for many of them, it was a deliberate choice not to vote at all, or else to go and vote and submit a blank or spoilt ballot paper. The reasons why these citizens choose not to show up or to vote blank or spoilt may also diffe

This trend towards “abstentionism” largely reflects a lack of interest and sometimes a growing dissatisfaction with regard to organised politics in parliaments, governments and political parties. It is vital that we focus more thoroughly on this aspect so that we can better understand the causes of this rejection

There have been plenty debates on this topic in both the Senate and the House. A Senate report is awaited from a committee examining “democratic renewal and citizenship”. The regional Parliaments have also had their say in the matter, as have the General Policy Declarations of the country’s various governments. And some levels of power have already taken initiatives on electoral reform. The Flemish
Region has opted to abolish compulsory voting for local elections from 2024 onwards. It has also decided to remove the effect of the headbox on the ballot paper and to give more weight to voters in appointing a mayor. Wallonia, on the other hand, has decided to scrap electronic voting completely and to return to voting on physical ballot papers. All of these reforms demonstrate that this is very much a topical issue

In May 2024Belgians will return to the polls to elect their federal and regional representatives. Then, on the first Sunday in October of the same year, they’ll be back at the ballot box to focus on elections to renew municipal and regional councils.

An unique survey to fill the void created by the obligation of “compulsory voting” 

In view of the decline in electoral participation, there is an urgent need to consider the causes of abstention in a representative democracy such as Belgium. This allows the debate on solutions that might enable the fight against the political disenchantment of people when it comes to elections.

The project led by Cevipol (Centre d’étude de la Vie Politique/ULB) and VUB (Vakgroep Politieke Wetenschappen/POLI), at the request of itsme. The final purpose is to draw up a scientific survey on what determines electoral participation in Belgium

This is an issue that has been explored far less in Belgium than in some other democracies, because the requirement of compulsory voting has stopped too great a fall in election turnout. As a result, an exhaustive study has not been conducted in Belgium into the factors that favour or reduce electoral participation. The report is designed to make up for this lack.

The following will be taken into consideration: a) international scientific literature, which will enable an inventory to be drawn up of the main factors that determine whether people vote or not (from a sociological, political and institutional point of view) and b) research into the effectiveness of various reforms and measures adopted by other democracies to fight against voter abstention. This exhaustive inventory will offer an oppotunity to open the debate around possible solutions to halt the decline of electoral participation in Belgium.

Professor Jean-Benoit Pilet (Cevipol)“Compared with many other countries, Belgium has not examined the issue of voter abstention in much depth, nor its origins and consequences. It is therefore crucial for us to learn lessons from the work carried out on this topic in neighbouring countries (voter abstention is a subject of concern in numerous democracies) so that we can better get a grip on the gradual decline in electoral participation in Belgium.”

Professor Sylvie Erzeel (VUB): “A study that provides a comparative perspective on the issue will not only tell us a lot about the prerequisites of voter turnout, but will also provide us with a fresh look at the state of democracy in Belgium.”

Professor Dave Sinardet (VUB)“Anyone who holds our democratic system dear will agree that the growing lack of interest and disengagement from politics are worrying issues that we need to try and understand in all their dimensions and nuances. Only if we do this can we try and provide responses that are constructive and effective.” 

Professor Didier Caluwaerts (VUB): “It’s a strange paradox. On the one hand, Belgium was one of the first countries in the world to introduce compulsory voting in 1893. It is also one of the few countries where this system is still in effect. On the other hand, we know very little about the reasons why Belgian citizens vote or not. This research will not only have great added scientific value, but it will also provide us with an insight into how democracy works for us as concerned citizens.” 

© itsme

itsme: a societal initiative by an app that 70% of Belgians would like to vote with online

For Belgian Mobile ID and its itsme digital ID app – a fine example in itself of a successful private-public collaboration – it’s a question of supporting the thinking process around the possible role and impact of e-voting in society. Above all, the itsme app respects people’s privacy in a digital world but will also contribute in a positive way to societal issues that will face the State and its citizens at the next elections

Since 2017, itsme has been making it possible for users to identify themselves, approve digital transactions and add official signatures in two very simple ways: either with a single, personal 5-digit code or by using a digital fingerprint. The itsme application is easy to use, secure and – above all – it respects people’s privacy

Today, the itsme digital ID app has more than 3 million active users and works with numerous partners from a range of sectors: banks, public services, hospitals, insurance companies, HR companies, social secretariats, document management platforms, real estate, law practices, accountancy firms, service infrastructures, companies active in the sector of mobility and many more. The itsme app is used by over 150 private companies as a means of identification / authentication and by more than 350 companies as a method of electronic signature.

The application has been recognised by the public authorities (BoSa) as a means of identification with a level of guarantee ‘high’ since January 2018 and on an EU level since December 2019

Stephanie De Bruyne, CEO of Belgian Mobile ID, emphasises:

 In an increasingly digital world, itsme is happy to make its features and technical knowledge about online identification and privacy available to the cause of clear thinking about civic participation. As 70% of the Belgians already indicated to be open to online voting, it seemed logical and necessary to us to survey this theme further.

Tight, symbolic timing 

Right now, Cevipol/VUB and itsme are committed to revealing the results of this survey on Monday 13th October – a date chosen with great symbolic care, since that will be exactly 3 years to the day until the local and provincial elections of 2024. The first of their kind when this vote will be compulsory in the 262 municipalities in Wallonia and 19 boroughs of Brussels, but where in the 300 municipalities of Flanders, citizens will be free to vote, or not.