Chile goes to the polls on Nov. 17. The biggest question regarding the presidential contest is not who will win, but when. Michele Bachelet, who served a prior term as president from 2006-2010, has a wide lead in the polls. Chile’s electoral rules require a candidate to win more than 50 percent of the vote to secure the presidency in the first round. Bachelet’s supporters would greet a first-round win as a strong mandate for decisive moves to make the tax code more progressive and overhaul the education system. If Bachelet falls short of a majority in the first round, she will face off against the second-place candidate in a December runoff. She is expected to prevail against any potential rival, but her adversaries would have the opportunity to coalesce in opposition, cracking her aura of invincibility and slowing the momentum behind progressive redistribution.
The most recent polls put Bachelet just above 50 percent among those who said they definitely or probably would vote, but turnout projections are more uncertain than in the past because of a recent reform that makes voting voluntary rather than compulsory. The shift could affect not only how many Chileans turn out, but the ideological predilections of those who do. If Bachelet is as close to the 50-percent threshold as polls suggest, and if there is a socioeconomic bias to turnout under Chile’s new, voluntary voting system, then the electoral reform could deny Bachelet a first-round victory.
Until 2011, registering to vote was not automatic – Chileans had to choose to do so – but once they registered, voting was compulsory. Starting in 2012, all eligible Chileans were automatically registered, but sanctions for non-voting were removed. The shift aimed to combat alienation from politics among younger Chileans, who, in massive numbers, were opting not to join the voter rolls in the first place. Registering, after all, exposed a citizen to possible fines for not voting that non-registrants would never face. Unless you were deeply committed to a party or candidate, why invite that headache? Some advocates for the reform argued that switching from voluntary registration and compulsory voting to automatic registration and voluntary voting would increase political engagement.
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