There are lots of good arguments as to why an individual should vote: perhaps I’ll write about some of those later, and talk about my own personal experience of the system. In this blog post, instead, I’m going to talk about a very bed argument for voting. It’s a very popular argument I’ve heard used by a great number of people who are in favour of compulsary (either at the legal level or just as a social pressure) voting. It’s a very popular argument, but it’s also a very weak argument. It goes something along the lines of this:
"If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain."
Over the remainder of this article, I’ll be taking apart this argument. To help me with the examples, I’ll be using a fictional character called John Voter. John is a resident of the United Kingdom, or a similar Western democracy. His political views are pretty moderate, and he isn’t a member of any particular party, but he’s open to new ideas and arguments: simply put, he’s the ultimate floating voter.
No One Candidate
Suppose the electorate is completely split between the candidates – every candidate gets exactly the same number of votes: there is only one ballot paper left to count, and it’s John’s. It’s a highly unfeasible scenario, but it serves for our purposes. In this scenario, John is responsible for choosing which candidate wins the election. This seems to some like an ideal oppertunity for many voters – a chance to choose exactly which candidate is elected – but not to John. You see, John can’t decide who to vote for. He likes the Red Party candidate’s promises of tax cuts, but he doesn’t approve of their foreign policies. Meanwhile, the Blue Party would increase taxes, but have foreign policies that he prefers. No single candidate is suited to John’s opinion. In the end, he flips a coin and votes for one of these two candidates.
Does John have a right to complain? He alone explicitly chose which candidate was elected, but he doesn’t approve of everything they’re going to do in their term. Does he have a right to criticise the candidate who he put in office. Think carefully before you answer.
If you answer no, then you’re saying that even if you do vote, you have no right to complain if your candidate is elected. It doesn’t actually matter whether or not John’s vote "makes the difference." More likely, he’s part of a larger group of people (all of the people who cast their vote the same way as him) who elected somebody who didn’t perfectly reflect their views, but reflected them more closely than any of the other candidates did.
More likely you answered yes; in this situation, where John singly "chooses" the politician who represents him, he still has a right to complain (you might even think that he has more right). So let’s take a different example. This one’s less hypothetical.
The votes are likely to be unevenly split amongst the candidates, just like a real election. There are candidates who will get only a few hundred votes, and there are candidates who will get tens of thousands. John still doesn’t know who to vote for, but – in this more realistic scenario – his vote will almost certainly not make a difference to which candidate is elected (note that I didn’t say that his vote will make no difference – perhaps I’ll look at arguments relating to whether votes "count" in a future blog post). Perhaps his chosen candidate will get in, or perhaps they won’t. Does he still have a right to complain?
Your answer is probably yes. Yes, John has every right to complain that his views are not being reflected, because no matter who he votes for – in fact, no matter who wins! – he will not be completely satisfied, because no politician is able to completely satisfy the things he cares about. He has chosen (either by concious decision or by flipping a coin, as before) to align himself with one of several viewpoints, neither of which he wholeheartedly agrees with. It doesn’t matter if he votes for one of the two tens-of-thousands-of-votes candidates in his constituancy, or if he votes for one of the less-popular candidates… the candidate that is elected remains the same (remember: I’m still not saying his vote doesn’t count). He’s still able, and probably feels the need, to complain about his elected representative.
So what’s the difference if he puts a blank ballot paper into the box? He was equally unhappy with all of the viable candidates anyway. And if he’s going to do that, he might as well not even bother going to the polling station, and make better use of his own time – he could draft a letter to be sent to the winning candidate, outlining his views, or he could write a blog post about why he isn’t voting, or he could go out with his mates for a pint. They’re all valid uses for his time (it is, after all, his time), and the net result is still the same as if he voted: a candidate he doesn’t 100% care for is elected, and he feels the need to complain about it.
And what right does anybody have to try to take away somebody’s right to complain. Complaining, otherwise known as "free speech," is a more important right than the right to vote. When you speak, you can influence people, whether they’re the unwashed masses or the people in power. When you vote, all you do is align yourself with somebody who represents less of the ideals you disagree with than any of the (limited) alternatives.
To say "if you don’t vote, you’ve got no right to complain," says a lot about the people who say it, though. When people say those words, what they’re actually implying that that they feel your right to complain should be dependent upon your duty to vote. On a personal level, they’re saying, "I feel that mandatory voting is important, and I plan to socially stigmatise you – by not listening to your complaints – as a way to try to coerce you into voting."
It’s sad that some people feel that the act of voting is more important than thinking about politics; that it’s more important for you to make an uninformed vote than it is for you to think about the changes you actually want to see, and help bring them about. It’s sad that everybody who "doesn’t vote" – from the man who just can’t be bothered and doesn’t care what happens (more on this in another post, as well, I think) to the anarchist who doesn’t want to support the system he opposes – gets lumped into a group of "apathetic voters."
The Personal Bit
Personally, I’ve very rarely felt the need to nominate a particular candidate as a preference over the others: most elections, I spoil a ballot, because no single candidate has a clear lead in my mind. I do, however, write to (well, usually e-mail and fax these days) politicians from time to time to try to persuade them of the validity of my viewpoints. I’d be more likely to vote in more elections if we had a better electoral system, such as STV. I’m not a non-voter (nor am I politically apathetic), I’m just, like John, unimpressed by most of the choices in most of the elections I participate in. The Liberal Democrats almost won my vote in the upcoming Welsh Assembly elections, but I challenged a representative of them on a couple of key issues I feel strongly about, and they seem to be adamant that they’re right (and I feel otherwise). It doesn’t look likely that I’ll find a candidate that reflects how I feel significantly better than any other, so instead of voting for a candidate, I’ll write a few letters (to whoever wins).
In the long run, if the system works, and politicians are at least slightly in it for the purpose of representing the views of their citizens, I’m having more of an effect than your average voter. If the system doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter anyway.
If I get the time, I’ll be talking about some of the (better) arguments for reasons to vote over the next couple of weeks. Don’t forget, those of you in Wales, Welsh Assembly polling day is May 3rd.