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I don't know enough about the many election systems throughout the world, but what I often see is that the abstention rate is at best an indicator (of something), if it's taken into account at all.

I know sometimes decisions made by parliament (and perhaps other legislative bodies) are subject to a minimal participation (i.e., abstention) rate to be considered valid and it is my I understanding that it is to keep the vote representative (i.e., enough of "the people" are represented to consider the decision fair and binding).

Therefore, wouldn't it be normal that the same principle applies to a public vote?

My question is: Have any countries implemented rules to invalidate a major election in the case of too little participation (a high abstention rate)?


Edit: Now that I have two answers, I realize how badly I asked my question, because I will have a hard time choosing which answer to accept if several are perfectly valid... Not sure how I could fix that.

9
  • Regarding which answer to accept, there's a meta question for that, though there's no real consensus besides "the one you like best".
    – timuzhti
    Nov 18 '20 at 1:37
  • 2
    It is not obligatory to select a best answer. Consider an explanation I gave over on Worldbuilding. It might prove helpful. Nov 18 '20 at 3:03
  • Accept the answer which requires the maximum participation. Nov 18 '20 at 9:54
  • @user2617804 Given there are countries where voting is mandatory (e.g. Australia), you could say the maximum there is 100%, although practically less because you can not vote and pay a fine instead. I don't believe they would invalidate elections with low turnout though, so this isn't an answer, but that penalty ensures that low turnout probably doesn't happen often. Nov 18 '20 at 13:17
  • I actually live in such a country: Belgium. Vote is still mandatory and indeed you technically could get a fine for not going, but practically speaking they're not enforcing it anymore. If anything such an obligation could make a limitation irrelevant, but on the other hand I think it makes the abstention even more significative: risking a fine not voting seems to have more meaning than just not engaging in voting.
    – Laurent S.
    Nov 18 '20 at 13:32
35

Yes, Article 81 of the Macedonian constitution (found here in Macedonian, or here in English) provides that the successful candidate in a Presidential election is elected by majority vote, provided that more than 40% of registered voters participate. This used to be 50%, but was altered by the 31st amendment in 2009 to 40%.

The provision in full:

A candidate for President of the Republic can be nominated by a minimum of 10,000 voters or at least 30 Representatives. A candidate for President of the Republic is elected if voted by a majority of the total number of voters. If in the first round of voting no candidate wins the majority required, voting in the second round is restricted to the two candidates who have won most votes in the first round.

The second round takes place within 14 days of the termination of voting in the first round. A candidate is elected President if he/she wins a majority of the votes of those who voted, provided more than half of the registered voters voted. If in the second round of voting no candidate wins the required majority of votes, the whole electoral procedure is repeated. If only one candidate is nominated for the post od President of the Republic and he/she does not obtain the required majority of votes in the first round, the whole electoral procedure is repeated.

And the amendment:

AMENDMENT XXXI

  1. A candidate is elected President if he/she wins a majority of the votes of those who voted, provided more than 40% of the registered voters voted.
  2. This Amendment replaces paragraph 5 of Article 81 of the Constitution of the Republic of Macedonia.

In addition, article 66 of the Constitution of the Republic of Tajikistan states that "The election of the President shall be deemed valid if more than half of the electorate takes part in it."

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  • 5
    That system seems like it could lead to unintended consequences - i.e. if turnout is below 50% but one candidate has a clear majority of the votes cast, then adding in more votes against that candidate can cause them to win when they otherwise wouldn't. Could you perhaps expand on whether this has ever been a problem in practice (in Macedonia, Tajikistan, or anywhere else)?
    – Drubbels
    Nov 18 '20 at 10:34
  • It seems from looking at Wikipedia that this is out of date - the constitution of Macedonia (now North Macedonia) was amended in 2009 to reduce the threshold to 40% of voters. I don't think the scenario @Drubbels raises is that plausible, since to be motivated to discourage supporters from voting at all, a candidate would have to prefer their chances of regaining support after losing an inquorate election to their chances of gaining enough support in the first process. It seems turnout levels have often barely exceeded the threshold, but not for strategic motivations as far as I can tell.
    – Will
    Nov 18 '20 at 16:26
  • 2
    @Will you're totally right, I didn't see the amendments at the bottom! Thanks
    – CDJB
    Nov 18 '20 at 16:29
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    @Drubbels: It's a well-known fact that every democratic system has unintended consequences. (Arrow's impossibility theorem).
    – MSalters
    Nov 19 '20 at 14:47
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    @Acccumulation No, the other articles in section 2 set out term limits. The elections happen in the last 60 days of the outgoing President's term - Article 82 states that if there is no President, the duties are carried out by the President of the Assembly (head of the legislature).
    – CDJB
    Nov 20 '20 at 13:25
24

The Russian Federation had minimum turnout requirements for presidential and Duma (parliamentary) elections until 2007, but they've since abolished the rule:

Since 2007 the minimum turnout of 50 % for presidential and 25 % for Duma of the registered electorate was abolished.

(Source: European Parliament)

A number of countries in Europe and elsewhere require a certain percentage of the electorate to vote in referenda for the result to be binding. For example, in Denmark, any constitutional amendment must be put to a public referendum and the amendment must receive a majority of votes that corresponds to at least 40 percent of the electorate. (Source: UK House of Commons Library)

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A minimum turnout is commonly used for referendums. See Referendums by country on Wikipedia, which has an entire column on minimum turnout. Sometimes this minimum is formulated as purely a minimum turnout, and sometimes as a minimum fraction of total electorate which must vote for a measure for it to pass. For example, in Romania a referendum is valid if at least 30% of the electorate participate. In Poland this threshold is 50%. It's easier for referendums than for general elections because in referendums one can define a fallback option, which normally is that the proposition has failed. For general elections the only reasonable fallback would be to repeat the election, which may again fail to meet the turnout criterion.

6

Yes. Such a requirement is often called a quorum. I haven't heard of any in public elections (although other posters mentioned a few examples), but it is extremely common in smaller voting bodies, anything from Congressional Committees (not sure about House or Senate itself), corporate shareholder meetings down to homeowner's associations. The quorum rules are usually defined in the bylaws of whatever body it is. It is usually, but not always, 50% of the members.

For instance, there had been some talk about all Democrats boycotting the hearing for Amy Barrett in the Senate Judiciary committee, at a time when several Republican senators were in Covid quarantine, in order to prevent the vote. In the end, enough Republicans showed up, so this didn't happen.

Sometimes, instead of, or in addition to, a quorum requirement, you find a minimum percentage threshold. Often, it is something like "if no candidate receives at least 50% of the votes, there will be a runoff election" as is about to happen for both of Georgia's Senate seats. Sometimes, such a requirement is based not on the number of votes cast, but the number of eligible voters. In that case, the effect is similar to a quorum.

Generally speaking, though, either rule would be hard to implement in large public elections, because it is hard to know the precise number of eligible voters.

4
  • "Generally speaking, though, either rule would be hard to implement in large public elections, because it is hard to know the precise number of eligible voters." You are right on that indeed, I realize I asked the question with the influence of the voting system in my country (Belgium) where vote is mandatory and every eligible voter receives a convocation. So here we know exactly how many people are supposed to vote. Other systems I know you need to subscribe to become eligible voter (I think France is like that)
    – Laurent S.
    Nov 18 '20 at 17:38
  • 1
    @StephenS Just curious: is it actually 50% of members, or 50% plus 1 member? If I recall correctly, at least in the Senate, votes are also based on the number of members, rather than the number of votes cast, so if only 50 Senators are present (assuming no vacancies), all votes would fail (or require the VP as tie breaker). Nov 19 '20 at 1:39
  • 3
    @LaurentS. Technically, even in Belgium, it's hard to know the exact size of the electorate, because there are likely going to be some edge cases. For instance, some eligible citizens might not be subject to the voting mandate, might be living abroad, might not have properly registered their residence with authorities, might have passed away the day before the election, or something like that. If a vote carries a quorum requirement, it may still be uncertain whether the quorum was met or not. Nov 19 '20 at 1:44
  • 1
    @StephenS The US Constitution says that quorum is majority, which is more than half. So in the senate with no vacancies this means more than 50, so at least 51. In the house with no vacancies this means more than 217.5, so at least 218. (Not "50% + 1", which would mean at least 218.5, or since you can't have half a member, at least 219)
    – DanTilkin
    Nov 20 '20 at 14:50

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