Not voting is a valid democratic act

Official ballot for the 2000 United States Presidential election, November 7, 2000, from Palm Beach County, Florida

I have noticed there has been a lot of chat about democracy and voting recently. There has been a ding-dong between a couple of comedians, Russell Brand and Robert Webb.

Generally, it is a bad idea to look to entertainers for political advice. After all, they are not paid to be experts in politics. Moreover, they are normally wholly detached from everyday life.

So I will not bother reading either comedian’s article in full. But I have seen that Russell Brand has encouraged people not to vote. Predictably, that has caused a stir.

I have never understood why people fetishise voting so much. People often claim that if you do not vote then you automatically lose your right to have a say in any way.

For instance, Jeremy Paxman told the Radio Times, “the person who chooses not to vote – cannot even be bothered to write ‘none of the above’ on a ballot paper – disqualifies himself from passing any comment at all.”

But it is never explained why a non-voter should be “disqualified” from all other political participation. It’s a non sequitur.

Elections are a fundamental of a democracy. But voting is not the key to all political participation. All of our rights do not simply boil down to trudging to a polling station to mark a cross out of a sense of duty.

In fact, I would say the opposite. Voting is just about the least valuable act you can take in a democracy.

One vote is worse than worthless. It makes no difference if an MP has a majority of 7,278 or 7,279. That will never, never, never change anything.

And yet, many of us go along and vote because society tells us we must. This is despite the fact that you have more chance of being killed on your way to the polling station than you have of casting the deciding vote. Worse still, the closer the contest, the more likely it is to be decided in smoke-filled rooms anyway. Hanging chads, anyone?

Texas 30th CD 1991 - 1996

We are all victims of our voting system. It could be a badly structured legislature, or an unfair voting system. It might be gerrymandered boundaries that would make a better Rorschach test than a contiguous geographical area.

Our solitary votes sink to the bottom of the sea of decisions that were made long before election day, all of which have a much bigger bearing on the result.

There are so many different ways for a citizen to participate in a democratic society, many of which can have much more power than one vote.

You could write a letter to your MP. They might take more notice of it than your indistinguishable one vote in the middle of a pile of thousands.

Never mind the people that tell you that you can’t have a say because you didn’t vote. You could write a letter to a newspaper. You could write a blog post. You could even talk to people about issues. That way you can share your ideas and you might begin to have influence and enact change.

Perhaps you might like to participate in a demonstration, join a pressure group, or volunteer with a charity.

Changing your energy supplier, or even your brand of corn flakes, are more important democratic actions than casting a vote. You might just be one customer. But unlike your one vote, your one lost sale equates to lost money. Then they will take notice.

This is just scratching the surface. There is a vast array of ways you can participate in a democratic society.

To say that you lose all of those rights just because you do not vote is offensive. It is a gross simplification of democracy.

Democracy is about so much more than that one day every four or five years. How many people cast their vote, then sit back smugly thinking, “that’s my democratic duty done for the next few years”? Those people are far more poisonous than those that choose not to vote but remain engaged in other democratic activities.

Saying that our ancestors fought for our right to vote is glib. They fought for all of our rights and freedoms, not just the right to put a cross in a box.

What concerns me greatly is the way non-voters are bullied into believing that by taking the legitimate action of not voting, they automatically lose all of their other rights. It is just not true. But the danger is that people might begin to believe it.

Then people really will be disenfranchised.


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