There seems to be a consensus among politicians, media, pundits, and callers to radio talk shows that our society would be better off if more of us voted. They don’t care who we vote for, so long as we vote. It is a notion so entrenched in our collective values that I have never heard it questioned. It is so popular, in fact, that there are many countries, including Australia, that fine their citizens if they ignore their obligation (and there are those who argue that Canada should create a similar law).

So let me be the first (that I’ve heard) to say that, while I would rather live in a society where the majority of people are interested in the goings-on of our legislatures, attempting to force that result may actually make us worse off.

I can think of two major reasons one might choose not to vote in Canada today:

(1) One is uninformed.

Being uninformed does not necessarily make one a bad citizen. I know people who work full time and spend a good portion of their leisure hours volunteering for charitable organizations. When it comes to politics, however, they don’t know much, so they don’t feel they should be involved in making the decision as to who leads us. To me, that sounds like an ethical decision from someone who does a lot of good for society. For them to take the time to learn about all the candidates might impede on the time they would normally spend on charity work.

But even if an uninformed person isn’t doing other good works with their time, why are pundits so convinced that we’d be better off if such a person were to vote? What are we gaining by having people guess at who should be elected? While that would increase our total percentage of voters (which looks good on paper) it would decrease our percentage of educated voters. Personally I would rather trust my fate to those who have spent time thinking about the issues at stake.

(2) One is too self-focussed to think about politics.

Voter-recruiters are bothered that a lot of young people don’t vote. Once again, I’m sure our world would be a better place if everyone cared about politics and voted without coercion. But if someone doesn’t vote for no other reason than that they don’t care, do they really have the maturity and greater-good considerations that we want in a voter? The sort of person who needs to be persuaded to care about their society will probably not consider any interests but their own when in the ballot box. Again, I would rather our political future be decided by those who, of their own volition, care about the result than by those who need to be berated into it.

Nevertheless, based on the unimpeachable notion that voting regardless of knowledge or motivation is always best for society, Elections BC has paid for television ads attempting to persuade everyone to vote. Does it really make sense to spend taxpayers’ money pleading with uninformed or unconcerned citizens to help us decide the identity of our government? If Elections BC were to create opportunities for those who want to be informed to have greater access to their politicians’ and party policies, then that to me would be a legitimate means of creating a more informed electorate. There is a distinction, however, between disseminating information and cheerleading participation.

While I’m sure that low voter turnout is a symptom of voter apathy, I see no evidence that it is the cause. Attempting to cure a lack of interest in politics by coercing those who don’t vote to do so (via either fines or guilt) is akin to trying to make society more environmental by encouraging people to drive in the H.O.V. lane regardless of whether their vehicle has high occupancy.

P.S. While I don’t agree with neutral bystanders such as Elections BC and the media trying to persuade everyone to vote, I do think it is their province to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to do so. Thus, where voter suppression tactics seem to be engaged, I believe it is the duty of the media to cry foul.

6 thoughts on “MISSING THE VOTE”

  1. You make a very good point here as well as raise a number of questions. I have heard that there are Australians, compelled to vote, who simply mark their ballot at random in order to avoid the fine. I’m sure you would agree that this is counterproductive and pretty well invalidates the notion of compulsory voting. On the other hand, have we asked outselves why voter turnout is descending? Why do so many people feel disengaged from politics; don’t know, don’t care, don’t want to know or care? Democracy was fought for and hard won over the centuries, but it now bears little resemblance to what it was like two hundred years ago. In contrast to the vitality and public participation of the townhall debates of the past, one only had to witness the ennui-inducing bland and repetitive speeches of the participants in Monday’s leaders’ debate. And, as it is widely known that our elected representatives do not, in fact, represent us, but must obediently toe the party line, our elections have become popularity contests for the party leaders. Given, too, the obnoxious attack ads and the inconsequential policy statements of provincial and federal candidates, it is not surprising that so many people are simply overcome with boredom.
    I believe it was Winston Churchill who said that democracy is a lousey form of government, but the best one that had yet been thought of. I wonder.

  2. Thanks TomD. I agree completely. It is unfortunate that more people are not engaged. And I would be interested to find out why that is, and if there is anything we can do it. However, I think forcing people to vote would simply mask the issue, as opposed to solving it. As you suggest, if people are voting without considering the choice they are making, are they really engaged?

  3. Very interesting discussion that goes against the popular opinion grain. What is your view on persons voting for the candidate Sethblogs tells them to vote for?

  4. Thank you, Natalie. In the case of people following my voting instructions, that would show both intelligence and moral character, so I would certainly support them in that decision. 😉

  5. After the election I saw an article in the paper asking ppl on the street what should be done about voter apathy. One guy said “Nothing; that way my vote carries more weight.”

  6. Thanks VMac. That’s a brilliant quote from the guy on the street. To my ear, his unexpected response beautifully undermines the supposedly neutral media’s assumption that voter apathy is a problem that needs be fixed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *