There is a provincial election in Ontario in three weeks, and I’ve been doing a bit of campaigning for the Green Party. In the process, I am astonished at the number of people who tell me, sometimes but not always guiltily, that they have no intention of voting. A bit of research shows that voter turnout is dropping everywhere, that rates are lowest in the US (below 50%), and that, unlike the rest of the world, US voter turnout rate correlates closely with voter income.
Why don’t people vote? The most common reasons seem to be, in order:
What are the consequences of this? It mitigates in favour of incumbent candidates and parties in power. It shifts the balance of political power and influence from citizens to corporations and pressure groups, who lavish attention and money on politicians and image-oriented political campaigns. It allows back-room abuses like kickbacks, pork-barreling and redistricting to go unchallenged. And it creates the vicious cycle shown in red in the chart above.
To try to understand this, consider as an analogy the reasons most people don’t exercise. They’re remarkably similar to the reasons most people don’t vote: It won’t make enough difference to justify the time needed to do it. I’m not going to stick with it anyway, so why set myself up to fail. My body doesn’t respond to exercise, and I might end up hurting or overstressing myself. I don’t know what kind of exercise my body needs, or can endure. I don’t know what exercise equipment/regimen to employ. The exercise equipment/regimen probably won’t work anyway. I’ll be depressed when I fail.By nature, most of us don’t like change. When something is very difficult, it is human nature to disengage, to avoid it, unless and until the pain of the status quo exceeds the pain of making the change. In the case of exercising, being told you are at high risk of a heart attack might raise the the pain of the status quo (not exercising) above the tipping point level of pain of the change (exercising).
The same is true in elections. Most of us need to be worked up about issues and candidates in order to get engaged in the political process. It is therefore in the best interest of incumbents to:
The chart above shows how this leads to a sedating and ‘dumbing down’ of the electorate, and ever-lower voter turnout. There are two potential tipping points that can, at least temporarily, break out of the vicious cycle:
What happens when an adverse political event (e.g. 9/11) or economic event (e.g. recession) occurs? Initially, voter expectations will rise. Incumbents can counter this either by disclaiming ability to anything about it (or blaming it on the previous administration), hence lowering expectations again, and/or by taking some action (like the Patriot Act or invading Iraq) and trying to persuade voters that this was the appropriate response. If they fail, it will lead to one of the two tipping points above; if they succeed, it will lead to voter apathy and the resumption of the vicious cycle.
The political pattern you see in most countries at both the national and local level indicates that reaching one of the two tipping points, and breaking out of the vicious cycle, is getting harder and harder. There is less and less attention paid to issues in campaigns, and more focus on personalities and mud-slinging (which plays into our aversion to change unless absolutely necessary and hence into the hands of incumbents). The seven bulleted techniques above that incumbents use on voters to stay in power, along with the back-room kick-backs to recurring big campaign donors, and the scandal of redistricting, all work effectively to entrench incumbents. And when incumbents are seen as invincible, voters disengage and make that invincibility a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Let’s look at each of the seven excuses above for not voting, in turn, and see what solutions might be available to overcome voter apathy.
The solution to Tweedledum/Tweedledee mediocrity and similarity of candidates is to get rid of ‘first past the post’ voting, and open up the electoral system to multiple political parties. With ‘instant runoff‘ ballots, voters can vote in order for the candidates they want, with the votes of the candidate with the fewest first-place votes shifting to their second choice, until one candidate has reached a clear majority of votes. This encourages supporters of small minority parties to vote, since they are no longer ‘throwing away their ballot’, and also solves the problem of vote-splitting, which tends to discourage voters who feel they can’t vote for the candidate they really want from voting at all. Of course, we also need to pressure the media to invite third party spokespeople to political debates and give them reasonable coverage.
The solution to the ‘foregone conclusion’ apathy is to introduce European-style proportional representation, and to eliminate redistricting. Under proportional representation, a block of seats in the House are set aside and allocated proportionately to the highest-polling candidates of parties whose share of the popular vote is lower than their share of the seats in the House (because they consistently place second or third in most districts/constituencies). That means that small parties with a substantial number of supporters widely geographically scattered get some House representation. Proportional representation would also alleviate non-voting excuse #7 above, the discouragement of always supporting losing candidates.
Even the fiercely pro-American Economist has railed against the partisan American redistricting process (“a national disgrace”). Redistricting allows the party in power to grossly manipulate riding boundaries to maximize their party’s chances of retaining power in the next election. The US is one of the few countries in the world that tolerates it. Other democracies use an independent electoral commission, which uses a neutral and systematic method to set logical electoral boundaries.
The third reason for non-voting (the candidates won’t do what they say anyway) is best solved through proper electoral finance reform. That means prohibiting corporations and organizations from making political donations or otherwise attempting to influence (through partisan advertising) elections and politicians. That means making it illegal, and revoking the charter of corporations and organizations that break the law. It is only by making politicians responsible once again to their constituents, and not to their campaign contributors, that politicians will start paying attention to citizens first.
There is no way to force politicians to state their positions on issues, or to mandate that citizens be informed about those issues, especially when we have media that pander to viewer ignorance to garner higher ratings. The solution lies in our beleaguered education systems. Europeans are more informed about political issues than we are because they have been brought up to think that it’s important, and as a result they talk about issues among themselves socially, and watch more television programs that address these issues.
The sixth reason for non-voting (that politicians can’t do anything anyway) is simply wrong-headed. Yes, there has been an enormous shift in power over the past several decades from governments to corporations, but this has happened before, and it’s reversible if there is political will to do so.
In some countries, the vicious cycle shown in red on the chart is less prevalent than the almost-as-vicious cycle represented by the five boxes in the lower left of the chart. In Canada provincially, and in some European countries federally, voters routinely dump the government in power in favour of an opposition party. In some cases this is due to more political activism, and holding elected officials to a high standard. In others, it’s due to a more cynical view that by changing governments regularly you prevent any party from getting too used to power, and allow each government to unearth and expose its predecessor’s scandals once they discover what really went on.
We can only hope that, for either reason, American voters decide next year to opt for this alternative vicious cycle when they mark their ballot for president.
Bottom line: the excuses for not voting are understandable, but weaselly. So even if you have to hold your nose and vote ‘strategically’, get off your rear and vote. Better yet, don’t just complain about the political process and politicians, get involved with them, and help bring about instant runoff balloting, proportional representation, an end to partisan redistricting, electoral finance reform, and better education of young, minority and low-income voters (who have the lowest voter turnout rates of all) on the issues that shape all our lives. So stop blogging and get out there.
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