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So this year, for the first year since the dictatorship two important things happened. One, is that compulsory voting was eradicated. It used to be that if you were registered to vote (which many people were not, and you’ll see why in a second), and you were less than 200 km from your polling place, and under a certain age (I think it’s 60, might have been higher), you had to vote. Or at least you had to show up to your polling place, get your thumb dyed blue (really!), and cast a ballot. If you were too far away, you could be excused by the local police.

The second important thing that happened, since compulsory voting was banished, is that universally, all Chileans (except those underage, not sure about felons) were inscribed in the voting rollbooks. But not only Chileans. Foreigners who have been here legally for five years were also given the right to vote. Which means I got to vote, too.

I live in one of the more “important” comunas (districts), in that it’s where the government is housed (though not the Congress, as that’s in Valparaíso), and where many ministries are located, and where the stock market is, etc. Our mayoral vote is important to alot of Santiaguinos (and Chileans in general), not just people who live in Santiago Centro, as I do. I won’t go into the details about the candidates, but the two candidates most likely to win still have many of my friends wringing their hands saying, we’ve got to get rid of A, but I also don’t like B.

At any rate, and politics (mostly, but not entirely) aside, I decided to vote. There were just a few mayoral candidates, and 69 different candidates for alderman. I wish I could say I was completely educated on all of their ins and outs, but that would be lie. But I educated myself through the media and blogs, and went off to cast my vote.

Necessarily, and to avoid voter fraud, you have to vote at the polling place to which you are assigned. And each person is also assigned a “mesa” where they have to go. Mine was 249.

But let’s back up a bit. If you follow this blog, you know that in recent times (say the past 20 months or so), Chile has seen more social movements/activism than since any time since the dictatorship ended with a democratic vote to oust President for Life, Augusto Pinochet, in 1989. The main issue in the current protests is access to education, but contemporaneously, there are other important social movements, such as the one defending Mapuche (indigenous people) rights. Many issues have become more commonly discussed, including gay rights, women’s rights, worker’s issues, etc. The protests have become a public forum for social ideas and resistance, and expressing dissatisfaction, and calling for actions, or in this case, inaction:

text reads: I won’t lend my vote (meaning, I won’t vote). And yes, there’s a hashtag. We’re very Twitterful here.

This message started appearing in the protests about two months ago, and has appeared on placards, signs, blogs, river-side murals (pictured), etc. People who don’t want to participate in the elections, previously have done so quietly. But this year it’s seen as a form of social protest.

But of course “don’t vote, don’t complain” has also taken appeared on Twitter and Facebook, with people insisting that if you don’t participate in democracy, no one wants to hear your cries of how you don’t like what’s happening later on. I understand the message behind people who insist that they won’t vote. A kind of, “I don’t want to participate in this system, and I don’t think these changes can come from within.” I’m not sure I’m buying it, and would have liked to at least see all of those people going to the polls and casting a null vote, to show that they’re not just lazy, they’re not participating. Not showing up to the polls doesn’t send the same message (in my opinion) as showing up and saying “I don’t like any of your candidates.”

And on the other side, the left (this is a leftist, not mainstream publication)is strongly encouraging people to vote:

Everyone, let’s vote, abstention favors the right.

Believing as I do, that you should cast a ballot, for the side of your choice, I set off to vote. Remember that? Well, the process is pretty straightforward. You go up to your table, present your carnet (national ID), they find you in the rolls, give you two ballots and little stamps to seal them with. And then you go into a booth to cast your ballot. What? you want to see the little stamps? Well, I’ve got you some little stamp pictures.

These you lick and use to seal your ballot before returning to the table, where they tear off a perforated number that says your ballot has been used, you drop one in each box (mayor/alderman), sign the book, get your ID back and leave.

The voting itself is not strange. It’s very similar to voting in other countries, hanging chads notwithstanding. But what I found strangest about the voting (though neither headcount nor results have yet been announced, since polls will be open for the next several hours), is the environment in which I was voting, and the iconic people and things I saw on the way in. In the US, there can be no campaign posters or campaigning activities within a certain radius of the polling place. That seems to also be the case in Chile. Because you wouldn’t want to unduly influence anyone. But what about these things:

Thing 1: Policemen

Every polling place had the street in front blocked off to vehicular traffic. A police officer was standing there, dressed in green, and flanked by orange traffic cones.
Why this is weird (to me): The police force at the moment is wildly unpopular, especially among protesters. They are viewed as a tool of oppression, capricious tear-gas throwers and protester-injurers.

Thing 2: Proximity to controversial places

My polling place is opposite the Museo de La Memoria, a giant glass building, opened by the last (non right) president, Michele Bachelet, and is a commemoration of the dictatorship. Inside there is footage of the bombing that started the coup, lots of media coverage, testimonials, etc.
Why this is weird (to me): Many people’s voting patterns are conditioned on the belief that certain candidates and parties are allied with the powers that were in control during the dictatorship. You’d think you wouldn’t want to remind people of that as they were on their way into the polls.

Thing 3: Military presence

Inside the polling place, and guarding all the entrances and exits, were fatigue-dressed military officers.
Why this is weird (to me): See military coup, and Museo de La Memoria.

Thing 4: Catholic school

My polling place was a Catholic school, and right next to the signs telling me where my “table” was located was a large cross.
Why this is weird (to me): Because where I am from, there is a strong division between church and state. Also, because some people might be swayed to voting for a more devout candidate on the basis of having walked by an important religious icon on the way in (or maybe not).

It remains to be seen who will come out on top, and perhaps more interestingly, how the voting population will have shifted due to non-compulsory voting, among other factors. I’m still left scratching my head about the above four factors, but I have long ago learned that I’m not in Kansas (or Brooklyn) anymore.