Brexit, Colombian Peace and Democracy: What’s in a Vote?

Photos originally uploaded on Flickr by Gimnasio La Montaña ("#SoyCapaz") and frankieleon ("Brexit tea")

Author's note: Special thanks to Sarah Stern, Program Officer on NDI's Latin America & The Caribbean team, for assistance on all things Colombia. 

Late into the night on June 23, I was feeling particularly sorry for myself. My train from New York to Washington had come to an abrupt stop, and I and my fellow groggy passengers were stranded for an indeterminable amount of time in Wilmington, DE. Slowly accepting sleeplessness in the bleak Amtrak station, my bloodshot eyes and I began to kill time by scrolling through the latest news. Suddenly, I saw something shocking. “What? Brexit happened?” The self-pity in my stomach imploded into a puff of perspective: half of Britain was having a far worse night than I. Despite polls suggesting a “Remain” victory, 52 percent of the United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union. It was so close. It was so unexpected. It felt so surreal.

I experienced a similar feeling of shock on October 2, upon the discovery that Colombia had voted to reject its peace deal, and by an even smaller margin - 50.2 percent against versus 49.8 percent for peace.

Though I personally had no skin in either political game, these two outcomes raised several disturbing questions: How could something so unanticipated happen? Would people lose faith in democracy? Could we be similarly blindsided in the United States in November?

The surprising outcomes in both Britain and Colombia are not completely baffling (in retrospect, naturally) when you take into consideration what was happening on the ground leading up to each vote. After the tragic June 16 murder of MP Jo Cox, in part due to her support for keeping ties with the EU, the Remain campaign became more vocal, while the Leave camp went quiet in the public sphere. Up until that point, polling consistently indicated that the vote could go either way.

Colombia experienced a similar “spiral of silence,” as Vox brought up, citing “a theory by the late German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, which posits that people prefer to keep quiet rather than publicly express views that they fear aren’t held by the majority.” Pollsters in Colombia asked voters if they supported “the final agreement to end the conflict and the construction of a stable and long-lasting peace.” Many answered in the affirmative (who doesn’t want peace?), while remaining skeptical of the terms of the actual peace deal. In addition, many Colombians felt turned off by what they considered a premature symbolic signing of the peace deal on September 26; the government did not allow the publication of polls after September 27, so this dissatisfaction was not reflected in larger public discourse during that period.

Equally as surprising as the Brexit and peace deal results was the turnout for each. General turnout in the U.K. was 71.8 percent, but many more baby boomers than millennials showed up to the polls (though actual turnout is debatable). With approximately one-quarter of Brits aged 18 to 24 voting to remain, and two-thirds of those over 65 voting to leave, it isn’t hard to speculate how the outcome of the referendum could have changed if more young people had participated.

In Colombia turnout was expected to be low. In fact, the government had lowered the threshold needed to approve the deal from the traditional 51 percent of eligible voters to merely 13 percent in order to ensure (oops) that the deal would pass. Such a small threshold, coupled with extremely favorable poll results, discouraged potential “yes” voters from going to the polls because they assumed that the peace deal was a foregone conclusion and their one vote wouldn’t matter. They were mistaken.

Another factor that affected turnout in both cases was the lack of a sense of ownership. As we saw from the google searches in the U.K. right after the Brexit results came out, many citizens had a poor understanding of the implication of their vote. In Colombia, the short six weeks between the agreement on an official deal (August 24) and the referendum (October 2) did not give all voters enough time to properly educate themselves on the final terms. NDI’s Colombia office rapidly produced and distributed educational pamphlets and four videos on the six-point deal; still, reaching 35 million registered voters spread out over 440,000 square miles in 39 days is a daunting task. When you don’t fully understand the stakes of a vote or truly realize its impact on your life, you’re less likely to participate.

Also, it rained in both places. A lot. And primarily in the strong “Remain” and “Sí” regions. But let’s leave the discussion of how climate change will impact democracy around the world for another day.

With our perfect hindsight vision, we now understand why what happened happened, but the question of what this means for democracy in general still looms. Is it dead? Do elections really matter? Of course they do; but elections are not everything. They are one part of democracy, not a perfect manifestation of it. I recently heard someone say she was going to write in a candidate for U.S. President because she wanted to "express her true self." There were similar protest votes in the United Kingdom (to send a message to the establishment) and Colombia (where the FARC remains extremely unpopular), cast by people who saw grey in an otherwise black and white choice.

In the end, these protest votes did not and will not help dissatisfied voters (or abstainers) acquire the better, more perfect tomorrow they envision for themselves and their countries. But other aspects of democracy can. Community organizing, issue advocacy, strengthening institutions, improving political parties, ensuring a free media, routing out corruption, safeguarding the judiciary, making way for diverse voices, allowing for dissent - there are many ways to exercise democracy every day, no matter where you live. And these actions will become increasingly important as people disengage with traditional political systems (like elections).

So, yes, we should vote on election day, even if it’s for the lesser of two evils, even if our ideal outcome isn’t an option. And on every other day of the year, we should fight for our perfect tomorrow through the many other actions that make up a democracy.