It’s been a long time since I’ve lived in the UK, and I am frequently taken by surprise by affairs in my native land that everyone else takes for granted. For example, voting. It turns out (of course I should have known this) that all you need to vote in Britain is a name registered at an address. It doesn’t need to be your name and address, because no one will check it.
I’ve clearly lived too long in countries that do not take democracy for granted, because this fact absolutely amazes me.
In Ukraine and Russia, you have to take your passport to the polling station to be allowed to vote. These countries of course have a venerable history of mass election fraud. It was Ukrainian/Russian writer Nikolai Gogol who coined the phrase ‘Dead Souls’: in his eponymous book, these are serfs who still exist on registers despite having died, and which the main character ‘collects’ in order to create an entirely fake existence as a wealthy serf-owner.
‘Dead souls’ is now a common phrase in Russian. Dead souls are deceased citizens still on election registers who manage to vote, or living people whose votes are cast by someone else, or even non-existent people invented in order to create an entirely fictional electoral majority. It’s claimed that in the 2004 Ukrainian presidential elections, there were up to three million false or dead soul votes.
Sixty-one percent of registered voters used their ballots in the last UK general election. That means there were just over seventeen million potential dead souls. Anyone inspired by, for example, the post-Soviet idea of democracy, would not have had to invent people, or bring them back from the dead, to get a majority. They would just have had to take advantage of the apathy of seventeen million people.
I had to leave the UK and live abroad to come to appreciate Britain’s tradition of democracy and civil liberties. Sure, there are many things wrong (as there are many things wrong with the way we use that word ‘democracy’). But the fact that we are still so confident of our basic honesty and our right to be heard or to keep silent that we will take our ballot papers on trust is at once wonderful – and strangely depressing.
In Ukraine, even with the passport system, no one can assume that their vote is not going to be cast by someone else. In Britain, we just can’t quite be bothered to either use the voting system as it is meant to be used, or even to exploit its potential for abuse.