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Reform suddenly swells Chilean voter rolls
Electoral reform adds millions of young voters in Chile, could affect elections
By The Associated Press

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) ' Chile's democracy is in for a major shake-up, with millions of citizens now added as registered voters.

The nation's Senate passed a reform that increases Chile's voting rolls by more than half, from 8.1 million to 12.6 million registered voters in the country of 17 million.

President Sebastian Pinera on Wednesday called the previous night's 25-8 vote a historic achievement, comparable to Chile's adoption of secret ballots in 1874 and of women gaining the right to vote in 1949.

Until now, registration was voluntary, but voting thereafter was mandatory, with $150 fines levied for failing to show up at the polls. The dictatorship-era system proved such a disincentive that fewer citizens bothered to register, giving an ever-smaller group of older voters a disproportionate say.

The new law automatically registers Chilean citizens on their 18th birthday, but makes voting optional.

Government spokesman Cristian Larroulet called it a much-needed improvement to Chile's political system.

"Our democracy has been getting older, it has been losing prestige," Larroulet said. "We need to bring politics closer to the people."

Nearly three-fourths of the new voters are less than 30 years old and part of a generation energized by this year's massive protests for changes in education funding. Municipal elections in October will provide a first test of the youth vote ahead of presidential and congressional elections in 2013.

"We now have a gigantic challenge: Perhaps because of this, many of us will be replaced in the future. I don't have the least doubt that there will be brutal changes in Chilean politics," opposition Sen. Ricardo Lagos said. "If we add to this what hopefully will be a reform of the two-party system and enable Chileans abroad to vote, we're going to get ever closer to a better and more healthy democracy."

Chile's system of dividing the spoils between center-right and center-left coalitions is next up for change. Created by the so-called "brains" of Gen. Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship, the late Sen. Jaime Guzman, it has all but insured that minority parties are kept out of Congress.

In Chile, both senate seats from each region are up for grabs in every other election, and unless a coalition collectively wins at least two-thirds of all the region's votes, it can be left out entirely. For example, if one coalition's candidates win 60 percent and 5 percent, and the other's win 55 percent and 12 percent totaling 67 percent, or two-thirds of votes, the latter party wins both seats, even though neither of its candidates was the top vote-getter.

Opposition Sen. Ignacio Walker called on Pinera to keep his promise and send to Congress a project to modify the law.

"Unless the binomial system is changed, we won't have an authentic democracy," he said.

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