The comedian and presenter Russell Brand is currently the talk of the Internet, his recent article for the New Statesman and interview on Newsnight (see below) sparking a debate whether or not to vote in elections.
Proudly stating that you aren’t voting is a very unpopular thing to do, but for some time I’ve believed that, for any one individual, making the effort to go and vote is a waste of time, though my reasons are different from Brand’s. I say this as someone who does in fact vote – I voted in the last general election, seeing my Liberal Democrat vote go towards supporting a coalition with Conservative David Cameron as its leader and George Osborne as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Needless to say, I now regret that vote.
What would have happened if I had voted differently? Cameron would still be PM. Clegg would still be his deputy. Whether I voted for Green, Labour or not at all, the outcome would have been the same. In fact, for my vote to have any effect, it would have to be the deciding vote – the top two candidates would have to have exactly the same number of votes.
The odds of a single vote being able to affect the outcome of an election will vary depending on the election, the constituency, and so on. ‘Safe’ seats are of course going to have lower odds than contested seats. It’s difficult to estimate, but I knew in advance that my Lib Dem vote in a safe Labour (with Conservatives in second) constituency was an exercise in futility.
This adds another complication. With a first-past-the-post system, tactical voting matters. If I judge that Green’s policies are the best, voting for them is just going to be a vote thrown away (unless I happened to be in Brighton). What I should have done is voted Labour to help keep the Tories out. However, I didn’t need to do this, as thankfully about six thousand other people did it for me. This system incentivises votes for candidates that voters don’t necessarily think are the best.
The reason I never played the National Lottery is that the odds are so bad that it isn’t worth parting with the pound that I could buy a sandwich with, or give to a homeless person. I think a similar principle is at play with voting. Is it really worth making the effort to register, to walk down to the polling booth? It seems to me that you have to weigh up this effort with the odds that your vote will actually achieve what you want it to achieve. Most of the time, the effort won’t be worth it.
But if everyone thought like that, then it wouldn’t be just one vote now, would it?
Indeed. But I’m not arguing that not voting should be a collective project. I’m merely saying that for any individual, there is little incentive to vote, given that not voting won’t have any effect on whether anyone else will vote. Trying to persuade large groups of people not to vote is a different matter. I’m aware that this blog post might do that, but 1) It won’t be read by enough people to really shake things up, and 2) Even if the act of posting this is a bad thing, it doesn’t mean that the argument in the post is wrong.
It feels good to participate in a thriving democracy. It’s this feeling I’m after.
That’s great. That’s probably the reason I vote as well – there has to be some reason why someone as disillusioned as I am keeps making that trip to the polling office. Of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone has to feel that way, and it doesn’t give us a reason to criticise or scoff at someone for not voting.
People fought for your right to vote… surely that’s a good reason to vote!
I love having the right to vote. I like having the right to an abortion too – people did and still do fight for that right. But just as I don’t feel that having the right to an abortion means that I should seek out opportunities to have abortions, I don’t feel that having the right to vote means that I should feel any pressure to vote.
Even if your vote doesn’t change anything, they still see it and notice that they were a bit closer to winning.
They still see it, but I doubt 1 vote in 12,000 is going to alter their thoughts in any way. Again, this is something to weigh up depending on the precise circumstances of your constituency, and the likely effect of your vote.
Don’t just not show up – if you’re protesting something then spoil your ballot instead!
I really don’t see how this helps. The person who counts your vote looks at whatever revolutionary cliché you’ve written, thinks “another idiot” and sticks you on the spoiled ballots pile. It’s not as if it gets posted to Osborne who takes a look and thinks “Yes – down with the greedy corporations who control society.”
If you don’t vote, then you’ve got no right to complain.
I’ve heard this a few times, but I’ve never heard an argument for it. If you didn’t vote for the reasons I’ve given, i.e. because it’s too unlikely to have an effect on the outcome, then you recognised that voting wouldn’t solve the thing you’re complaining about. And what if you voted Green and ‘threw your vote away’? What if the people you helped vote in are the ones messing up? I can’t stand the coalition government in the UK, yet I ‘voted for them’ (though I don’t remember the Lib Dem box stating that it would be a vote for Cameron becoming Prime Minister).
One Final Subsidiary Argument…
I voted for the Liberal Democrats because picked an issue I cared about – digital and Internet freedom. The Digital Economy Act was proposed at the time, and the Labour MP supported it. The Lib Dems were pretty good on it, as they were with secular issues, free speech and so on. So, I picked Lib Dem.
Since then, Clegg has become a bit of a joke, the Lib Dems have lost a lot of support due to their involvement in the coalition government with the Tories, and I discovered that the Labour MP in my constituency is excellent (though he shouldn’t have voted for that stupid Act). I was wrong. I’m glad my vote had no effect.
When it comes to voting, I don’t really know what I’m doing. So perhaps I shouldn’t vote – I’ll just leave that to those who aren’t as uninformed. Many people seem to be political experts, so perhaps it’s for the best.