Before I start, though, I should make clear that I love voting. For as long as I could vote I’ve been a self-proclaimed “Political Junkie”. Voting is a big deal for me in my house and I have always looked forward to election time and exercising my “democratic right”. But not voting is as much a democratic right as voting. So it would be wrong to punish people for not casting a ballot in federal, provincial or municipal elections.
Many people who choose not to vote may be attempting to show their discontent with politicians and politics in general, but most are simply apathetic. But what drives their apathy? Is it their fault they don't care enough to go to a polling station or is there something about our politicians and politics that has caused them to tune out?
As voter turnout in recent elections slips to 50% more and more of the hand-wringing, eat-your-peas, poke-noses who dominate our public debates have called for a mandatory voting law, along the lines of the one in Australia, where non-voters are fined and turnout is often over 90%. But why do we automatically assume the problem is with those who chose not to vote, rather than with those who have failed to inspire them to vote?
There’s something that kind of bugs me about the way people criticize those who don’t vote. It feels very sanctimonious, similar to the way some people lecture you to eat healthy, exercise or breastfeed. Democracy is great and voting is a key component of any free society. But people also have a right not to vote and, indeed, I think not voting is a perfectly defensible choice. Here are three reasons why.
1. Voting is irrational. People keep saying that “every vote counts” but the honest truth is that your single vote will almost certainly not make a difference. Even the closest of races are not decided by a single vote. For every voter out there, the outcome in their riding would be identical whether they bothered to vote or not. Voting is something that requires a non-trivial investment of time and effort for which you get no obvious pay off. Of course, if a thousand or a million people thought that way, their decision not to vote would make a difference. But that doesn’t make any one vote more significant, or the decision of any one voter not to bother voting any less rational. The real question is not why so many people don’t vote but why so many people do. The best argument I’ve heard is that we vote not to change the outcome of an election but because it makes us feel good or signals to others that we are smart, engaged citizens. This is why some efforts to make voting easier with mail-in or online voting have actually decreased voter turnout: when no one can see us voting, it’s not so attractive.
2. The major parties aren’t that different. For example, While the New Democrat Party (NDP) and the BC Liberal Party did their best to convince voters that the May 14 Provincial election was a choice between a socialist dystopia and a heartless right-wing regime, the fact is that by any reasonable standard the two parties’ policies just aren’t that different. One way to frame this argument is: “Why bother choosing between the lesser of two evils?” Most Canadians agree on most things and, as a result, neither party was offering a radical platform that would change things that much. Both parties support public health care and public education. Both parties were planning to slightly increase taxes on those earning more than $150,000. And their philosophy on corporate tax rates differed by a single percentage point. Sure, there were some issues on which the parties disagreed, like resource development. But even here the differences weren’t as big as some people made them out to be (both parties support natural gas extraction; neither one seemed likely to approve the Northern Gateway pipeline). For some voters, of course, there were issues they care deeply about on which the parties indeed differ. But most citizens could, quite reasonably, say they’d be fine if either party got in.
3. Low voter turnout may be a signal of contentment. The conventional wisdom of why voter turnout has been dropping for decades is that people are becoming disengaged from the political process and turned off by politics. But there’s an equally likely explanation: people are pretty happy and agree with each other. The highest turnout in recent memory in Canada occurred in 1995, when 93% of Quebecers turned out to vote in that province’s sovereignty referendum. The stakes in that election were huge. Half the voters wanted to create a new country.
A common argument you hear is that if you don’t vote on Election Day, you don’t have a right to complain for the next four years. I don’t actually buy this argument as it presumes that your one vote would make a difference which, as we’ve established, it won’t. So I say non-voters still have free reign to bitch and moan as much as voters do. The no-complaint point is also, I think, a profoundly weird argument for voting. Are we really saying people should vote not to choose their own government or be politically engaged but so they can whine for four years without guilt?
While I think it’s OK if someone chooses not to vote, I also think we should do everything we can to boost voter turnout. We should want our government to reflect the will of the people. I think projects like the mock Student Vote are a great idea. And it’s worth thinking about whether switching to a different style of voting, like proportional representation, might encourage more people to take part.
But people who choose not to vote aren’t bad people. They’re not undermining democracy. And they shouldn’t be ashamed of themselves. The right to vote includes the right not to vote. And we need to respect that.
In my opinion it would be wrong to bribe or threaten citizens to cast ballots.