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:

  1. There isn’t enough difference between the candidates/parties to make it worthwhile
  2. The outcome is a foregone conclusion/one vote won’t change it
  3. The candidates can’t be trusted to do what they say
  4. Voters don’t know enough about the candidates to differentiate
  5. Voters don’t know enough about the issues to make an informed choice
  6. Except at the highest level, politicians don’t really have the power to do anything anyway
  7. Voters get depressed when the candidates they get worked up about almost invariably lose, or fail to deliver

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:

  • Lower voter expectations
  • Not rock the boat
  • Keep the economy flat
  • Disclaim ability to do much when adverse political or economic events occur
  • Minimize personal responsibility for anything the government does that might be unpopular
  • Discourage voter awareness of, and interest in,  issues (focus on personalities instead)
  • Bribe voters with their own money by constantly lowering services (under the guise of ‘lowering taxes’)

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:

  • If an incumbent does something to annoy the electorate enough, or if an exciting new candidate emerges to run against him, voters may show up in enough numbers to turf the incumbent.
  • The increased enthusiasm that led to the new candidate’s election will sooner or later be dashed, and when voters are disenchanted they will either disengage again (leading back to the vicious cycle with the new incumbent) or will get angry enough to turf the new incumbent as well (in a two-party system, often forcing voters to grit their teeth and vote for his predecessor, who they’d kicked out the last time).

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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5 Responses to WHY DON’T PEOPLE VOTE?

  1. David Jones says:

    Regarding the reasons why people do not vote:Many people think one vote does not make a difference, and therfore stay home on election day. What many people do not understand is that the vote count is watched very carefully by political candidates and parties. Who votes for whom by polling station as well as constituency is competitive intelligence. The two key tools in the political fixer’s bag of tricks are the voter’s lists and the voting patterns. And be aware: while it matters who you vote for on election day in terms of electing a candidate; it also matters that you vote for someone else, or if you do not vote at all.To explain. There are three options in voting. (1) Voting for the winning candidate; (2) voting for another candidate; and (3) not voting. All these behaviours are critical intelligence to political analysts. They look at only one thing: this election in the context of the next election. But the results are also key intelligence to the policy and program wonks: The data will guide what the winning (and losing) party does, when, and how. Political and government program activity may be clear and cohert where where there is a strong and deciding voting pattern (which does not necessarily mean just a strong support for the winning candidate. Think about trends). Resources flow to areas oif reliability and predictability.Where the voting is erratic or there is a very low turnout, there could be very serious implications. I would go so far as to suggest that a riding where the vote pattern is really mixed – and where there are a lot of spoiled ballots or non voters, folks can pretty well expect to be off most political screens for a generation. It’s just too chaotic to manage and plan in that environment. A Minister would be crazy to do anything because whatever he/she did would be challenged. (As much chance for loss as gain).So – the message here is clear. The guys who wrote the slogan “It doesn’t matter how you vote -just vote” were right. For a very long time I disagreed with that instruction because I thought votes should be thoughful. Then I realized that all votes and non-votes werre indeed thoughful. And there are effects from each and every action, and non action.The challenge is to be a fully informed elector and know what the potential consequences are from doing something……….. or doing nothing.If laws, values and regulations are important to you – then you have an obligation to get out and vote. Non-voting may be a vote for activity in a direction that would really be troublesome for you. Do you want to suffer the criticisms of your friends for allowing a dreadful thing to happen because you could not be bothered – because you thought one vote didn’t matter?

  2. Stentor says:

    “In Canada provincially, and in some European countries federally, voters routinely dump the government in power in favour of an opposition party.”How often is “routinely”? Over the past century, the American presidency has usually switched parties every two or three elections.

  3. mrG says:

    Working for the Greens? Oh good: Maybe you can ask around and see why no one there thought it necessary to reply to my email regarding Dean-style social software. If you ask me, a good implementation hits all three of your tippping points square on, and Dean has proven it.Back to the issue, the protest vote is a powerful tool most people ignore at their peril. Living as I do in an area that basically re-elects their candidate until they retire, the alternatives are still important as indicators of the flavour of the representation the region would prefer. For example, while we’ll undoubtedly vote Liberal federally, the strong support for Alliance (not a chance in Ontario) tells the Liberal MP that we have clear concerns with issues such as gun control and agriculture. Thus, since the message is strongest where all the missing votes are tallied tangentally to the underdogs instead of shifting merely blue or red, it’s useful to canvas for the Greens even if they haven’t a snowball’s chance of making any difference in the house.IMHO, this is where most underdog candidates let their egos spoil their chances; they keep talking about making a difference after they get elected, but their true value is in making the difference while they campaign. You and I can’t join the podium during the debates, but they can, they are vital catalysts for political awareness in the Big Three parties, and the weight of their voices is directly proportional to the number of hoots from their audience of supporters.Also, back to social software, a skilled candidate can open the pandora’s box on key issues, and if they just so happen to also leave in their campaign wake a clear and comprehensive social software archive of community dialogue, they’ve left far more pressure in the pot than any bundle of petition papers.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    David: You’re right. I’m amazed at how the Greens are thinking ahead and analyzing voting trends for the next election when this one is still 2 weeks away.Stentor: Yes, and the reason may be the same, although term limits play into the US Presidential picture as well.Gary: Send me the e-mail and I’ll pass it on to the webheads in the party — they’re probably interested but the party is living hand-to-mouth and with its small volunteer team it as no time for anything except the low-tech basics of campaign work. If there’d been 18 months to plan like Dean had, it would have been a different matter. And alas, the ‘liberal’ Canadian media won’t allow Green Party leader Frank de Jong to participate in the debates (the BC Green leader did participate in their debate, and that increased the party’s vote from 2% to 10% in the subsequent election).

  5. Rob Paterson says:

    Hi DaveI might become one of your weasels. On PEI which has voter turnout in the mid 80% level, I cannot see what I will get for voting for either party. Both have steadfastedly avoided the underlying issues and campaign on who will spend more on doctors, nurses and teachers. My response has been to set up a weblog PEI Election Watch that does talk about the issues and which is starting to involve a candiddate or two.My suspicion is that there is a deeper malaise here driven by the nbature of our nedia. When a 6 second sound bite is all that can be admitted – the polictics has to devolve into slogans and sneers. My hope si that blogging can open up the issues again.

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