Another guest post, this time one which is not directly election-related.  Well, it is, kind of.  But more to do with whether you should vote or not.  Its from Andrew Combe, a guy Malc went to uni with, who now lives in Norway and is missing out on all the fun the Holyrood election is bringing us.  Not that he minds, since he probably wouldn’t vote anyway…

The right to vote is as universal and uncompromising as the right to life, the right to education or the right to clean drinking water and good sanitation.  As with all rights that can be justly described as ‘universal,’ it is better protected in some countries and regions of the world than others.  However, to say that a right is universal is not to say that it is impersonal.  Voting is a highly subjective experience, comparable to one’s sexual orientation, religious beliefs or absolute autonomy over his or her body.  If I happen to be promiscuous, that’s my business.  If I choose to lead a life of meditation, self-chastisement and celibacy, that’s my business.   Equally, if I choose not to exercise my right to vote, that’s my business.  Moreover, my (not) doing so is as legitimate-a-fulfilment of my voting right as it is putting a cross next to my preferred (or, as is too often the case, tactically selected) candidate at every available opportunity, or indeed stubbornly turning in a ballot paper across which is scrawled Not Fit For Purpose time and time again.  If a member of society chooses not to vote, he or she cannot be described as any less engaged with their society or government than any other member.  Those who exercise the right not to vote should also enjoy the right not to be berated and devalued by society for taking that choice and moreover, should be regarded as equals in society, something that they remain come-what-May.

In the nine or so years that I have had the vote, I have put a cross next to one candidate’s name (a down-to-Earth Conservative who seemed to be genuinely interested in local issues in the Stirling area) and spoilt my paper three times (twice in county and parish elections in Kent).  Upon disclosing this information I more often than not get a distasteful look followed by a catalogue of what would seem to be perfectly legitimate arguments as to why I should vote.  A typical discourse can be paraphrased as follows:  “It’s your duty to vote as a responsible citizen.  If you don’t like the way things are then you’re not helping to change them.  Every vote counts.  If you don’t vote then you’ve no right to complain when decisions are taken that you don’t agree with or that adversely affect you.  Even if you don’t like any of the main contenders, you should at least vote to a) rid us of the current incompetent incumbents or b) suppress such-and-such-a-group.”  This ‘such-and-such-a-group’ is most often a particularly unpleasant yet noisy bunch of extremists who are continually being egged on by all wings of the media just to propel a good rolling story, albeit under the guise of the Expose Them For What They Are argument.  I usually provoke yelps of indignation, disbelief and typically a cry of “well you should bloody well know better then,” upon revealing that I studied politics pretty seriously for five years.  I’ve also been accused of being a cynic.

As clearly stated above, I regard voting as a right, something that should be differentiated from a duty.  As a state citizen, it is the government and other elected representatives who have a duty towards me.  This is the cornerstone principle of democracy upon which electoral systems and other democratic institutions are designed and built.  Politicians are accountable to the people they represent, not the other way round.  Moreover, there is no middle ground which allows politicians to say “we’re in no way accountable to you as you chose not to play your part in the system when you couldn’t be bothered to vote.”  The dynamics of the accountability principle are in no way changed no matter how many people abstain from voting.  Citizens are part of the fabric of the system of representation and government to which they are subjected.  There is no ‘opt-out’ clause triggered by the act of not voting, no alternative system or society to turn to.  When I choose not to vote, I remain bound by the same laws and social norms as all those who do vote; The Big Society is in fact The Only Society.  I’m obliged to pay taxes which fund services that I am dependant on and which fund initiatives and wars that I regard as a waste of time and morally reprehensible respectively.  I’m obliged to respond to a census (a perfectly legitimate obligation), providing information which determines how government policy is rolled out for the following ten years.  In such a captive environment, every single citizen has the right to question, scrutinise and criticise the work and conduct of those who both represent and serve them.  (In the interests of full disclosure, I might at that I did ‘opt-out’ two years ago when I moved to Norway where I’m not eligible to vote for a further three years.  Such an Oh But You Did Turn To An Alternative System argument would however, be a little convoluted.)

I’ll conclude with the suggestion that to vote tactically, for whatever reason, exposes wholesale inadequacies in the electoral system in use (or perhaps just the manner in which the democratic process tolerates systematic abuse by various stakeholders).  Voting should be a positive experience, one that is simple, natural, free, and free of stigma.  The fact that it basically isn’t, even in the most developed democracies in the western world, is the most significant reason for which so many people choose not to vote.  An electoral system (or ‘electoral environment’) in which citizens don’t feel free to vote for the party or candidate of their preference is a system which has itself compromised the right to vote, and choosing not to participate in that system through the act of not voting is one of many ways of highlighting the urgency of electoral reform.  Similarly, I would suggest that to compel citizens to vote (as, for example, in Australia) is to sabotage the democratic process even before it is in motion.  (The theme of compulsory voting was picked up on in the early days of Better Nation).

If you do come across someone who didn’t vote, be it on 6th May or in the aftermath of any other election, don’t be too hard on them.  It doesn’t mean that they don’t care, aren’t interested, or of any less value to society than the most avid of political activists.