My inner voter turmoil

Politics. What a good way to spoil a party.

Yesterday British people had the opportunity to elect their local government leaders. In London, undoubtedly the most prominent election that took place was the mayoral one: the battle between “Buffoon” Boris Johnson the incumbent and “Red” Ken Livingstone in an attempt to reclaim his seat at City Hall. The votes are still being counted as of today.

I have friends who shout from both ends of the political spectrum. A quick trawl through my social networking yesterday and I could easily find both “BACK BORIS” and “SACK BORIS” as well as “Anyone but BoJo” and “Not Ken again”. My own political opinions aside, these people are exercising their free speech and voicing their opinions, which is of course fine. But among those very same pages are other comments I’ve seen which remind me that I have a growing problem with another kind of people: those who don’t vote.

A lot of my friends do, don’t get me wrong. Some of the comments are “Just voted, make sure you do too!” or even “I just voted, though I’m getting tired of the whole thing.” But some people simply refuse to vote. I’ve heard many excuses: “My one vote won’t make a difference.”, “I can’t really stand any of the candidates.”, “I don’t have time.”, “Oh it only encourages them”, etc. etc. ad nauseam. And then the BBC came out with a [link] report today saying that only 32% of the population actually voted, which is the lowest figure since 2000.

What? WHAT!? This baffles me. How is that supposed to be an accurate representation of what people want? From this, the people who get into government may simply be the candidate who got the most people into the polling station. 

Now, I completely sympathize with people who call themselves apathetic towards government in general. But that’s no excuse to be lazy. These are the people who make decisions that directly affect your life. If you are not happy with the decisions, not voting seems hardly the best way to do something about it. My point is, if you choose not to vote, you have no right to complain about what the government does. Or about the people in government.

You may be asking, Wow, Jon, why do you feel so strongly about voting? Well let me tell you. In Wisconsin, where I’m originally from, there is a very rare event taking place that stands to alter the state’s political landscape. Arguably the whole of America is watching us to see how it’s all going to turn out. In 2010, the citizens of Wisconsin elected a new governor by the name of Scott Walker. In that election, voter turnout was approximately 50%. Within his first month as governor, Mr Walker passed controversial measures that subsequently angered enough Wisconsinites that massive protests were held in the state capital and he is now under threat of being removed from office via a recall election. You may have heard of this.

The recall election is set for June 5th. In all likelihood I will probably still be in London at that time (What, you think I’m going to miss the Diamond Jubilee?), but thankfully Wisconsin has a helpful measure that allows residents to apply for an absentee ballot no matter where you live (unless they’ve registered to vote in another area). This means I can vote by mail, and I’ve done this before. However, because I have been living in London for over 5 years, my residency status is in question, and it may be possible that due to a technicality I won’t be allowed to submit an absentee ballot and therefore will not be allowed to vote in this once-in-a-lifetime, important election. I’m still trying to sort this out.

Also, as I am an American citizen, and not (yet) a British citizen, I am not allowed to vote in ANY election here in the UK. European citizens who reside here are, but not me, even though I’ve lived here long enough to be eligible for citizenship.

So people who tell me they’re too busy to vote or don’t want to because it’s pointless really get my goat. If you think your one vote doesn’t matter, then you’re not looking at the bigger picture and you need to get out of your bubble. I won’t even start talking about parts of the world where people aren’t allowed to vote.

In my ideal world (i.e. if I were president of the universe) I would make it against the law not to vote. If you don’t, you are not allowed to receive benefits or any sort of advantage from the government (though you must still pay taxes). You may choose to abstain from voting for any particular candidate, but you must go to the polling booth and actively decide that. You cannot simply stay at home.

As easy as it is to be apathetic towards politics, I’ve learned that it is an unavoidable part of life. Yes, I know that there are many things wrong with politics today (as there ever have been), but choosing not to take part in democracy is no way to change that. No, not everyone has to be an activist or a lobbyist or whatever. But everyone should do the least they can do and take a few minutes of their day and tick a few boxes. Come on, Britain, 32% is pitiful. 


  1. Bravo Jonathon!
    Dad and I are so proud of you! You have expressed a serious and personal subject with such great finesse! One of of the greatest freedoms we have as Americans is the "right to vote!" Thank you Jon for addressing this!

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  3. Good article Jonathan. I agree that if people don't vote, they have no right to complain. I always vote at elections myself, and I'm happy to do so.

    However, in this country at least, we consider choosing not voting as much as a freedom and democratic right, as much as choosing to vote. Abstention is something our MPs often exercise in parliament, so it would be hypocritical to implement compulsory voting on electorate.

    It'd be against our principles of Magna Carta, to co-erce people to vote-- intellectualised control-freakery. If you attempted to introduce here, it would cause the sort of protests you'd see in Winconsin

    Pragmatically, I fail to see what would CV actually achieve. It'd force everyone to go to the polling booth sure-- but it doesn't mean to say that greater than said 32% would vote for any candidate.

    If anyone doesn't want to vote for any the candidates, they'd just spoil their ballot paper or leave it blank-- no practical difference from that same person not turning out. So you would punish somebody for staying at home and no voting for anyone; but somebody who turns up at the polling booth and does the same thing, would be unpenalised! (Then there's needless expense of investigating non-turnouts) I think that's only ideal for petty authoritarians

    An enforced 100% turnout cunningly masks distaste for the candidates, or the elections themselves. It arrogantly assumes it's the fault of the voter, and avoids politicians having to examine their own shortcomings. It also avoids politicians having to question whether certain imposed layers of govt are actually necessary (low turnout for police commissioners being a prime example, voters saw right through that, it sends a powerful message)

    If you believe all non-voters think "what's the point", because they are lazy; then it's time for you to get out of your bubble and consider the bigger picture. There are other reasons..

    1) They realise that the main dominant 3 parties in this country are practically the same.
    2) The main system of voting here, first-past-the-post, means their vote is often wasted anyway, especially for a smaller party
    3) What they're voting for is sometimes a superfluous cause (police commissioners for instance)
    4) Many realise the EU makes the majority of our laws, and they're initiated by EU Comissioners who are unelected and unaccountable.

    So what to do? Firstly politicians have to start offering a proper choice. In 1992 general election, there was a stark difference between the main three parties, consequently there were record votes for the main three parties. Now that the main three parties are practically indistinguishable, millions fewer vote.

    Secondly if we want people to vote, then we need to alter first-past-the-post. In New Zealand they did just that, opting for mixed-member proportional, voter turnout increased and has stayed increased. The problem of 'wasted' votes vanished, and people can vote for smaller parties of independents more effectively.

    Thirdly, if the answer is "more politicians", then we are asking the wrong question. We are over-governed. Getting rid of two-tier council areas, police commissioners, leaving the EU and having a properly confederal UK would be a start: Encourage people to vote; plus govt would be more efficient and cheaper.

    People do care about politics here. The millions who have attended various rallies in London attest to this, as does the ever popular Question Time, or the fact that Britain has more newspapers per head that anywhere else.

    CV is the sort totalitarianism this country has strove to fight off over the years-- our prizing of individual freedom has allowed UK citizens to achieve the many things this country has. We've learnt that you don't preserve freedom and democracy, by embracing the opposite.

    The British are not generally apathetic about politics per se, but the system and political class that operates here. Address that and people will vote in greater numbers.

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  6. With the British electoral system, the people who get into government, will always be the candidate who got the most people into the polling station-- regardless of turnout.

    1. Hi Roger, thanks for your comments.

      I will just direct you to a sentence in my penultimate paragraph: "You may choose to abstain from voting for any particular candidate, but you must go to the polling booth and actively decide that." When I say that as president of the universe I would make everyone vote, I don't mean they have to vote for a person. If you choose not to vote, then you have to *choose* not to vote.

      If you had 100% turnout and 68% of the population abstained from voting for any particular candidate, I don't think that masks distaste at all. Casting a vote (even when it's an abstention) is what it means to be part of a democracy, and indeed part of society.

      Also, I never said that *all* non-voters think "what's the point" or are lazy; I'm just upset at those who do. I'm not ignorant of other reasons.

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  11. Many thanks for clarification Jonathan, much appreciated, fair enough.

    I think you make an excellent case as to why it's important to vote-- indeed I always vote at every election. I certainly can understand why you would be upset at "what's the point" voters-- I feel their attitude is self-defeating and saddening too.

    On the other hand in a free democracy, it's as much their choice not to turn-up as it to do so. The basic definition of democracy, is power exercised by the people; for the government to force people into turning out, is a subversion of that.

    If I were Captain of Universe, I'd see it as overbearing to threaten people into voting, especially as it is not a civic duty; no more than I would withhold your citizenship or punish you for not donating blood or doing volunteer work regularly. If I were standing as Captain in an election, I know would not get in on policy to CV... assuming it was an elected role, it would be a rich irony to preach about democracy if that role was not open to election! ;-)

    Granted it's possible one or two people may have a change of heart and vote for someone, if CV were introduced. However I can't see most of those who would stay at home, suddenly becoming interesting in voting someone, especially if they're bullied into doing so by govt.

    If that hypothetical 60% turned out and didn't vote for any candidate, it would have the same effect as those 60% just staying at home. Same difference. All you do is incur a needless cost in making sure everyone turns out, and tyrannical hounding those who don't.

    Australia has compulsory voting, and there still are constituencies where spoilt/NOTA votes outweigh many of the candidates, and winning candidates get much less than 50% of the vote. So all CV does there is just satisfy the arrogant whims of infamously control-freak nature of the Australian political class.

    Democracy is about choice. If one offers the voter a Henry Ford choice, turnout and unspoilt votes will be low. If the voter is presented with a real choice of candidates and voting-system where all votes count, then you will see voter-turnout and actual 'proper' votes increase. Voter turnout has increased with NZ changing its voting system. The last two American and French elections each have offered two markedly different presidential candidates, turnout has been up.

    That's my tuppence-worth anyway. I think we ought to agree to disagree on the matter of CV, I think, since we agree the rest :-)


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