Why is it important to vote?

On my usual travels round the blogosphere tonight, I must have read twenty or thirty exhortations to vote in today’s US election. Many such posts state that it doesn’t matter who you vote for, just so long as you vote. Why is this?

When I was too young to vote, I was very keen to do so. We had debates and mock elections at school, and were pretty opinionated and (naively, maybe) informed about which party we supported and what they all stood for. For many years, every time there was a general or local election, I voted (not always for the same party). I used postal votes when necessary, and always made sure to get to the polling station if I was based at home at the time. But in recent years, I have stopped. I still vote in general elections, true, but without any enthusiasm for the menu of candidates I am offered. In local elections, I do not vote any more. I have lived in this town for 15 years and have seen all parties either in control or in coalition form — none of them is the slightest bit different in the event. I have become a cynic — engendered by their horrible nasty election leaflets that come through the door blaming everyone but themselves for every wrong in the world and making unrealistic, blanket promises they have no intention of fulfilling.

On the national level, too, politicians are employing an ever-increasing number of unelected special advisers, press officers, PA people, minders, gurus, hairdressers, fortune-tellers and assorted hangers-on. We have seen our main political parties jettison any pretence of conviction politics in favour of appealing to a narrow set of swing voters who can tip some constituency if they are satisfied on a single issue. We’ve seen spin, media management, honours given to newspaper editors while the editors are still in-post, focus groups, opinion polls, etc.

I am not mentioning greed, corruption, hypocrisy and delusions of grandeur, because politicians have always been like that — it was always par for the course. If they were unlucky enough to get caught (eg Profumo) they resigned. Now they just cling on shamelessly for as long as they can persuade their political agents and parties not to sack them — and if they are sacked or if they quit, it is because of votes, not principles. Everything seems to be acceptable.

Politicians in power are tinkering at the edges, sacrificing their election manifestos and failing to represent the interests of the people who voted for them. The media is pathetic, preferring to focus on trivia, gossip and hysteria than in providing decent investigative journalism.

So tell me again, why is it so important to use your vote? Not voting isn’t opening the door to fascism or communism or any other horror. It is a small, inoffensive way to indicate one’s inability to make a positive choice from the depressing options on offer.

Let me know where my argument is flawed.

9 thoughts on “Why is it important to vote?

  1. I think a spoiled ballot does a better job of indicating that you actively don’t want to choose… Because at least it shows that you are thinking about it. Isn’t the problem that lots of people don’t vote simply because they can’t be bothered or they don’t care?
    I was brought up to value my right to vote as a key freedom. Like you, I had lots of mock elections at school etc– and my dad always said that I would have no right to moan about anything if I didn’t do my bit to express what I wanted by voting.
    I feel an enormous responsibility to exercise that right– especially when so many people around the world don’t have any sort of choice or voice.
    I agree about the depressing set of candidates– especially as they all seem to be trying to steal each other’s best ideas and all too nervous of moving too left or too right. But I think if I didn’t turn up to vote I would suffer several sleepless nights and would feel the need to hide the fact like a dirty secret…
    Sorry – I feel like I’ve been banging on a bit (especially since I’ve probably bored you with all this before)!

  2. I voted this morning and later had lunch with a friend whose votes probably cancelled all of mine. I think voting is important because, in this country, many people have heretofore not cared enough to even cast one. Today they will. I was at my tiny polling station early and I was already the 208th voter. The last couple of years in America have riled people — there’s a huge feeling of division, of things not being right in the country — and people will be voting in record numbers today to record what they really think, or as close to it as they can get, anyway.
    My husband, ever the good citizen (he’s always on township committees, helping out one way and another), is ferrying old people to polls at this very moment. He’s been on the job the last several hours, directing a team of 6 college students. The polls close at 8 p.m.
    Voting does matter in the way that Sian describes it. Even if, really, it’s mainly a symbolic power, it is still one that we need to exercise. To me, it’s one of the primary characteristics of a free country.

  3. I agree with your argument, Maxine. But I’m also aware that the kind of ‘democracy’ we talk about and idealize has been undermined and is in great danger of disappearing altogether.
    There are many reasons for this but one of the primary ones is the way in which the political parties and our voting system are organized.
    I would suggest a real and strict capping on the amount of political funding a party can accept from single individuals and commercial organizations. Some method whereby we can make it impossible for a party and its policies to be bought.
    And secondly some foolproof way of proportional representation, so that individual votes can be seen and counted.

  4. Having grown up in a country where 90% of the population was not allowed to vote, I can assure you Maxine it is crucial to vote. You have a privilege which people died for (think of that post you did on suffragettes recently!), and others still die for in parts of the world today. Sian is right: spoiling your ballot is a far stronger message; it says I want to vote, but not for you lot. Not going to the polls implies (whether you mean it or not) that the right to vote is not valued.

  5. Thank you very much, everyone, for your comments. I do agree that even a spoiled vote is a “counted” vote, and I do still vote in general elections (or if the MP of my constituency is replaced mid-term). It is only the local elections in which I have stopped, because they all lie about quite specific local issues (eg schools, hospitals) and I do not want to vote for people that I know break quite specific promises.
    Equiano, Susan and Sian, I certainly don’t disagree. I just wish the system could be improved.
    John — yes I agree that we need to have a cap both on polictical campaign spending and on the number of unelected people politicians can employ once elected (we have a civil service for that which is explicitly neutral).
    However, proportional representation is not obviously a solution — whenever that debate comes up I just look at Italy. Even in countries where it works better practically, eg Germany and France, you end up with tiny extreme parties holding the balance of power. The other downside of PR is that it ushers in yet another wave of ghastly bureaucrats to operate it and make up rules and regulations, absorbing yet more taxpayers’ money from actually helping to create a better society (schools, hospitals, universities, etc).

  6. Hi Maxine:
    I was one of those exhorting people to vote. I also made my husband (who thinks much like you) and my apolitical neighbor vote. And guess what? Not only did our entire state go blue (it would have happened without us, but it makes me feel better about living here), but we voted out our local anti-gay, anti-stem cell research, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion state senator who has been in power for 24 years.
    Now I know I’m talking about a different country, but in my case, voting was great this time around.

  7. Hi Kelly, thanks for coming over, and so pleased to hear you are happy with your result.
    I do vote over here when it is a question of a national election or an MP (nearest equivalent we have to a senator), so there is hope for me yet.

  8. Sorry I arrived late to this discussion! Of course you’re absolutely right, Maxine, however I like to vote just for the satisfaction of knowing that my vote cancels out one extremist vote. The results of the recent U.S. election demonstrate that it really is possibly to effect change. The change we’ve just seen was probably brought about by many people who didn’t even bother to vote last time.
    Having said all that, I do basically agree with you. Politicians as a lot seem to be people who would be incapable of making it in the ‘private’ sector. We elect incompetents who cannot manage their own affairs and hope that they might miraculously be able to manage a country’s affairs.
    There is a movement called the “Libertarian Party” in the U.S. which espouses *less* government. They may be a little ‘off-the-wall’ however there’s a grain of wisdom in their rhetoric. I think that ideally a country could be run by a few competent bureaucrats who could put various decisions before the voters via computer.

  9. Thanks, Susan — yes, I think I might vote for a party that said it would do nothing, especially local candidates who waste so much money on irrelevant “new road” schemes while hospital wards close down…
    But the US election, now — many commentators are saying that the vote was more of an anti-Iraq occupation vote than anything else, pointing out that the democrats didn’t have a platform (apart from anti GOP), have chosed conservative/ex Republican candidates themselves, votes very close in most areas, etc. When you look at the overall composition of both houses, it is pretty even. So no landslide and not much in the way of issue politics?

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