Friday, September 24, 2010

Against compulsory voting

Over on Red Alert, Clare Curran argues that people should get out and vote in the local body elections. But she goes further:

There’s no law in New Zealand requiring you to vote. Personally I support such a law. I believe it’s not only the right of every citizen to vote, it’s a responsibility.
While I agree strongly with her urge to participate, I disagree absolutely with the latter. Here's why.

Firstly, why you should vote: because politics matters. The decisions politicians make, about the environment, about the economy, about human rights and foreign affairs have real consequences. Our rivers will be dirtier and our greenhouse gas emissions higher because of decisions made by this National government. Some people will have more money in their pockets, but a lot more will be worse off, because wages won't rise or they've been thrown out of work. Some people won't be able to vote, others will receive unjustly long prison sentences because of National's pandering to sadists. Some will die avoidably on the roads. And at least one man - Lieutenant Timothy O'Donnell - is dead because they decided to suck up to the US and keep propping up a corrupt and morally indefensible government in Afghanistan.

The decisions politicians make can make a real difference to people's lives, for better or for worse. The general direction of those decisions is determined by the politicians in office. So, the decisions we make about who will represent us matter as well. Which is why I vote, and why I try to persuade other people to do so as well (and lobby, and protest, and submit, and generally involve themselves in government - because its our government, damn it, and if you don't do this, you'll get stomped all over by someone who does).

But I don't think voting should be compulsory. This is not due to any snobbish beliefs about the need to make an "informed" vote (whatever that means) and desire to exclude those who can't be bothered. Instead its because in a democracy, voting is a formal act of consent to government. By voting, I help to legitimise the government and the decisions it purports to make on my behalf. But in order for that consent to be meaningful, I need to be able to deny it. On this view, compulsory voting is effectively forced consent to government, a fundamental denial of the beliefs underlying democracy.

But that's not the only reason. I've talked above about how politics matters. But it doesn't always. In New Zealand, we're lucky - MMP makes our votes meaningful and our choices real. But other countries suffer under unfair electoral systems which effectively artificially constrain political choice. In others, the choices on offer are so narrow as to be no choice at all for many people. You see this in the US, where voters can choose between one bunch of plutocratic arseholes or the other, and regardless they'll get tax cuts for the rich, welfare cuts for the poor, and trillions wasted on foreign wars. These parties basically offer nothing to ordinary Americans, and so half of them have stopped voting. And you can see it in the UK, where turnout plummeted when it became apparent that "New" Labour was just old Thatcher in drag. Once it became apparent that it made no difference, people stopped voting.

Closer to home, I had exactly this experience in my uninspiring local body election: none of the candidates for mayor deserved my vote, so I left that part of the ballot paper blank. If it had been the only decision in this election, the entire thing would simply have gone in the bin.

So, on this view, compulsory voting effectively forces some voters (those in such jurisdictions who feel disenfranchised and who cannot be bothered writing "fuck you all" on their ballot paper and wiping their arse with it before putting it in the box) to support politicians and parties that offer them nothing or are actively opposed to their interests. That is also a fundamental denial of the beliefs underlying democracy.

So what to do about low turnouts? First, we need to recognise that the problem lies not with voters, but with politicians. That's not "apathy' - its rejection. And its not "cynicism", but a recognition by many that there are no real choices on offer. And that means the solution has to come from politicians as well - not by forcing us to support them, but by convincing us to, and offering real choices. And if they they're too lazy to do that, then they deserve our rejection.