In defence of abstention

Yet again, the comments to a previous post have gone on an interesting tangent. Once again Jeff was behind it. He’s not afraid to get stuck into a debate and he always has some interesting points to share, even though I don’t always agree with him! I thought the discussion was quite good so I want to share some of it in a new post and also expand on my thinking behind abstention and why it is not a bad thing.

Before I start I should point out that I have never abstained in an election that was at local government level or above. In fact, in the local government elections last year I listed a whopping four preferences. Not bad for a cynic! (Having said that, it was admittedly for negative reasons — I wanted to vote for everyone except Labour).

Nonetheless, I struggle nowadays to understand why abstainers are so vilified, as though they are sub-human. I think sometimes people conflate abstention with apathy. In reality it is perfectly consistent to be interested in politics and yet not vote when the election comes round.

In his first comment Jeff said:

I find it incredible that someone can maintain such a thoughtful and intelligent political blog with all these numerous opinions and then, when an election comes around, he may not take part.

Compare and contrast with James O’Malley’s comment:

I think your experiences of becoming more apathetic with age – essentially more apathetic as you became better informed – are pretty similar for a lot of people. I’ve just finished a degree in International Relations, and as a consequence of learning what a horrible bleak mess the world is, I think we all became cynical about almost anything political.

I have gone through a similar process. Being interested in elections and voting behaviour, whenever there was an opportunity to study them at university I took it. I wrote my dissertation on what motivates people to vote. The whole learning experience has led me to become less likely to vote and more sympathetic towards abstainers.

(As an aside, if anyone’s interested, I have decided to upload my dissertation here since it got the best mark of anything I ever did at university so I feel quite good about it! So if you’re interested and you have a bit of spare time, have a read and you might get a bit more insight into my current thinking about voting.)

In short, Jeff asked why someone like me would not vote despite knowing so much about politics. What slipped his mind was the possibility that someone like me would not vote because they know so much about politics.

For a few months now I have been meaning to outline a few problems with elections and democracy as we know it (this post isn’t it by the way, it’s still coming). This is not because I am not a democrat, because I am. However, I am disappointed in the poor standard of analysis of democracy. Discussions about it frequently descend into a list of clichés and slogans. It leads me to think that most people are democrats because of blind faith rather than because they have actually thought about it.

That’s a dangerous situation to be in because it breeds complacency. The flaws of democracy are constantly swept under the carpet. But the only way to improve things is to put the flaws on a pedestal and debate them properly. Simply pulling out that hoary old Churchill quote doesn’t bring us any further forward.

That was the case in the comments to the post about student apathy. All I said was that I understood why some people would not vote. Before I knew it, commenters made out that I was advocating something resembling anarchy, I had no right to complain if I didn’t vote, I was doing an injustice to the people of Zimbabwe, and, yes, that bloody Churchill quote was wheeled out. A who’s who of clichéd arguments that get us no further forward.

Bellgrove Belle began proceedings by advocating compulsory voting — albeit with a ‘none of the above’ option (how gracious of you!!). I let that slip by at the time, but only because I didn’t want to go down that tangent. However, now that I have started a separate post I will outline why compulsory voting is the most outrageous idea.

Firstly — and this should hardly need pointing out — people are not the servants of politicians. Yet. Politicians are the servants of the people. Having a government frogmarching everyone to the polling station is not my idea of freedom. The point about the right to vote is that it is a right. That means that you can choose to use it or not. If you are forced to vote, it is no longer a right — it is an oppression.

A vital principle of our liberal way of life is that people know for themselves what is best in almost all instances unless their actions cause harm to others. If people do not vote, it is not because they are wrong (which is a view typically only found among political elites). It is because, for the abstainers, it is costly to go out and vote. And if it is costly for an individual, in turn it is costly to society.

Beyond the cost of sending everyone out to vote, what is wrong with just leaving people be? People should be perfectly entitled to abstain if they want. Forcing people to do things they do not want to do will only breed even more cynicism and apathy.

Having a ‘none of the above’ option is the ridiculous fig leaf to all of these criticisms. There is already a none of the above option. People know very well that they can spoil their paper when they get to the polling station. If people were screaming out for a none of the above option, we would know it by now.

I have only ever heard compulsory voting being advocated by two groups of people: politicians and aspiring politicians. It is funny that these people should select the one ‘solution’ to apathy that is almost guaranteed to give them more votes. What a coincidence! Moreover, it is the lazy option for them to choose. It implies that it is the voters who have done wrong, which is a very undemocratic stance to take in actual fact. For politicians, the idea that it is they themselves who have caused apathy — and that it is their job to fix it — is too difficult for them to comprehend, so it seems.

Jeff was next up, suggesting that the logical conclusion of my defending abstention for an individual is advocating mass abstention. Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, it is the very fact that others vote in their millions that makes abstention as an individual a reasonable option.

If no-one else voted then I would find the voting decision very easy — I would cast the deciding vote, probably for myself. We don’t live in that world, and my stance is a pragmatic recognition of that fact.

There is that old guilt trip: “what if everyone else thought like you?” The point is that not everyone does think like me. And it would be rather egotistical of me to think that my actions would be copied en masse by the population as a whole. If it were the case that I was so influential, I would find myself sharing the same bed with six and a half billion others every night. As Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt point out:

Imagine that you and your 8-year-old daughter are taking a walk through a botanical garden when she suddenly pulls a bright blossom off a tree.

“You shouldn’t do that,” you find yourself saying.

“Why not?” she asks.

“Well,” you reason, “because if everyone picked one, there wouldn’t be any flowers left at all.”

“Yeah, but everybody isn’t picking them,” she says with a look. “Only me.”

Then Jeff pulls out that old one — if you’re so dissatisfied with the candidates, why don’t you stand yourself? The answer, I would have thought, should be obvious. Standing for election would involve immense personal financial and other costs. I would have to give up my job to dedicate enough time to campaigning, meaning a loss of income. Then I would have to somehow fund the campaign itself.

On top of that, I would probably lose my deposit. The political system is heavily biased in favour of the large parties — partly because of the voting system, partly because of the media and whatever else. The fact is that if you want to be successful in an election you almost always need the backing of a big party machine.

Independent candidates are successful from time to time, and small parties do break through. But in reality these are all led by either someone with a lot of money or a celebrity figure like Tommy Sheridan or Martin Bell. The other successful independents are single-issue (often local-issue) candidates, and I am interested in more than one local issue.

The point I am making is that were I to stand for election tomorrow, no matter how good my policies were, I would have almost no chance of making any kind of impact whatsoever. Am I supposed to believe, as Jeff suggests, that this is the extent of my democratic powers? You can’t exactly blame someone for not doing this when the odds are so heavily stacked against them.

Get ready for another cliché now. “If you don’t vote, you don’t have the right to complain.” Aaah, *tick*.

This is one of the oldest ones in the book. Yet even though it’s a catchy slogan, what is always omitted is exactly the reason why you don’t have the right to complain. Is that because there isn’t one?

Democracy is about so much more than elections. For sure, an election is a vital cog in the democratic process, but it is just one cog among many. China has elections, but that doesn’t make it a democracy. Just this week we have witnessed a sham election in Zimbabwe.

I would think that the idea that elections are the only valid form of political participation in a democracy would come as a surprise to the many pressure groups, non-governmental organisations, media outlets, publishers, think tanks, academics, mass demonstrators, lone protesters, letter writers, bloggers even, and others — all of whom play a vital role in a democracy. Is it really more valid to enact change “from within”? Then we are to do away with all of these vital elements of civic society? Are these people all supposed to stand for election as well? Are they harassed about their voting behaviour before being permitted to speak up?

Democracy is so much more than putting an X in a box. It is about speaking out, debating and persuading. If you have next to no power in the ballot box, what is so illegitimate about using a different method of trying to improve the world? I think that suggesting that people don’t have a right to speak out because they recognise that their vote is near worthless is actually an intensely anti-democratic view to take.

Jeff’s position is apparently to say that the only valid way I have to express myself is to vote for someone, even if it is the “least worst” candidate. Am I really supposed to believe that the extent of my democratic rights is to vote Lib Dem instead of Labour?

Even when I do express a preference in the polling booth, that vote is a drop in the ocean. My reasons for voting are lost among those of thousands of other voters (or, in a national election, millions of others), each of whom voted for different reasons. The politician then cherry-picks the reasons that suit his agenda best. So what have I achieved by voting?

I can say that the time I have spent voting is a waste when I could have spent that time engaging in another democratic activity. For instance, I could have spent that time writing here. That way I can articulate my views in an infinitely more nuanced way than I would by voting. This makes my voice louder than it otherwise would have been. I believe that I can make more of a difference by doing this. What would be so illegitimate about that?

This is all without even getting into the instance where you genuinely are undecided. If a voter is guilt-tripped or compelled to haul himself into the polling station, what is he supposed to do? Toss a coin? Close his eyes and see where the pencil lands? Given that your vote is essentially a way of enforcing your views onto other people, I am amazed that anyone thinks that the decision to vote should be taken so lightly.

Finally came the guilt trip from Ideas of Civilisation. He brought up the current situation in Zimbabwe saying, “it’s a reminder of the freedoms, and responsibilities, we have here.”

The thing is, I believe that recent events in Zimbabwe support my view. Morgan Tsvangirai pulled out of the contest because the election was a “violent sham”. Was that illegitimate? Or should he have contested the election because otherwise he doesn’t have the right to criticise? Of course not. His voice is louder outside the contest and he has made the point about the current situation in Zimbabwe very forcefully. It is a perfect example of making one’s voice heard outside of official electoral channels.

Of course, the situation in Zimbabwe is very different to the situation we face in this country and other, freer, more democratic countries. I suspect the point IoC was making about Zimbabwe was that, in such countries whenever there is a free election is usually has a comparatively high turnout.

That is right, although it is a very different situation. When you are given hope in the shape of an inspiring candidate you are bound to grab it with both hands. That is the case even more so if the bandwagon theory (discussed in my dissertation) is true — people want to feel a part of making a big change so will take part in the vote.

You don’t have to live in an unfree country for such a thing to happen, so that doesn’t put this country’s politicians off the hook. Barack Obama is currently doing it in the USA by engaging certain parts of the electorate at levels that have never been achieved before. It’s just that right now there is no such candidate in this country.

Back to the unfree country though. Even in the hypothetical watershed election that brings everyone hope, turnout will not be 100%. It might be higher than the turnouts we see in this country, but it will be nowhere near 100%. In fact, if turnout was anywhere close to 100% accusations of vote rigging will be flying.

This fact demonstrates that abstention is a perfectly natural and legitimate position to take in an election. In fact, it serves a very useful function in a democracy. Any attempts to eradicate it should be viewed with as much suspicion as attempts to eradicate any other political view.


  1. Um, yeah. That was very well put. I didn’t comment on the previous post (meant to, got sidetracked), but I wanted to merely correct a few factual errors, the thrust of your argument is fine, and still is.

    The 1992 General Election result was effectively determined by less than 2000 people. If you don’t live in a swing marginal, voting is fairly pointless, symptom of the huge mess up that is First Past The Post in such a large society. Specifically, these days Scottish constuencies, with their random fluctuations and unlikelihood of electing a Tory, have little to no effect on the UK Govt, if it came down to it, the SNP would likely back Labour in exchange for stuff they couldn’t get from the Conservatives.

    So abstention for most people, and ignoring the process most of the time, is perfectly rational.

    I’ll read through your dissertation when I’ve time, I did love the voting paradox when I studied it.

    (your factual error was to say that students overall don’t vote—I’ve worked student polling stations, they definitely do—the ‘low turnout’ is frequently caused by double registration, you register where you study and at home, and frequently vote by post or proxy at home, it’s perfectly legit to be registered in two locales if you only vote in one, thus turnout is artificially lowered).

    Oh, I used to back compulsory voting, but came to the same conclusion you did on the issue (for the same reasons)—I used to believe in the civic duty/jury service thing, but now believe it’s incumbent on politicians to give me a reason to vote.

    It’s not unrelated that countries with more responsive voting systems also have much higher turnout at election time, Italian elections are considered a low turnout if they get what we’d consider record numbers…

  2. Interested in your experience of students voting. I hadn’t thought about the figures that way, though I knew they could register twice.

    I think it’s wrong to blame low turnout completely on the voting system (although that is part of the story). The thing is, we have always had FPTP in this country and some of those elections have had turnouts reaching 80-odd percent. Elections with some form of PR — like the Scottish Parliament (around 50%) or the European Parliament (around 40%) — have pretty low turnouts. That is probably because they are not ‘first-order’ elections, but nonetheless it shows that there’s a lot more to the story than the voting system. I think we should just get rid of FPTP anyway, but not because it causes low turnout because I don’t think it does to any great extent.

  3. Refusing to vote though has one bad effect – those who do are more committed and are often committed to the wrong thing.

  4. Doctor Vee,

    I suspect it’s being brought up Catholic that well places me to provide the ‘guilt trip’!

    Anyway that’s a very articluate argument and one that I’m not indifferent to. And what’s more a look at voting turnout suggests more and more people agree with you.

    I think there possibly is an age thing behind this; you may start off with an interest in politics but as you grow up and realise the world isn’t so black and white it’s easier to get cynical.

    I don’t entirely agree with the poster above who blames the voting system; voting turnout is actually higher on average for Westminster than Holyrood, where PR is in operation.

    I do however agree that a people are more likely to vote when there is a purpose to do so e.g. an important local matter, the chance to get rid of an unpopular government and so on.

    My main concern though relates to what happens when voting is confined to smaller groups; it’s more likely that single interests that may not be best for the country-at-large come to the fore.

    In an ideal world there would be a way when people could have more of a say on the issues that politicians deal with without needing a local rep but I don’t see how this can ever really work in practice. The idea of online voting on such matters sounds good but gets into problems of who sets the question in the first place, what about people who cannot access the internet, and so on.

    Therefore ultimately I come back to the issue of what’s the alternative? As we’ve seen in the past a government that begins to outlive it’s usefulness or popularity will be voted out. That alone at least keeps politicians on their toes to some extent. Until someone comes up with an suggestion of another way to do this then I still think we all have a responsibility to participate.

  5. I think we should just get rid of FPTP anyway, but not because it causes low turnout because I don’t think it does to any great extent.

    I’ve been working on an analysis of the last GE results comparing turnout to seat safety, it’s nowhere near finished, but there’s a distinct trendline showing the safer the seat the lower the turnout. Much more obvious on Labour seats, and much less obvious on Tory seats.

    Partially it’s because of apathy, but also the parties campaign there less—I’ve lived in safe seats in the past, and when an election came up, got in the car and gone to a neighbouring target seat. If the parties contest it less, then there’s less literature, leafleting, etc and people are less likely to vote anyway.

    The thing is that when the ‘main’ election is FPTP, that effects everything else, it takes awhile for things to adapt, not least because the mainstream parties exist to fight elections under FPTP, system denotes party makeup, when countries change their voting systems, parties realign to adapt fairly quickly but not immediately. When you have a mix of voting systems then the most important determines the parties to a large extent.

    There are huge factors relating to turnout, but seat safety is significant—historically you can look at it in different ways, turnout was highest in ’92 as no one knew who would win, it was lower in ’97, everyone knew there would be a Labour victory anyway, etc. Demographics also affect it, the wealthier and older tend to vote more, they also tend to be more likely to be Conservative voters, and Tory seats have higher turnouts, etc.

  6. Ideas of Civilisation — I completely agree with you on the importance of elections as a device for changing government. I’m not saying get rid of elections. I’m just saying that if you don’t have a strong preference, then it’s valid to decide not to vote.

  7. Warning! Long comment alert!

    I think compulsory voting could work with two extra stipulations:

    1) anyone not voting is recorded as voting for “None of the Above”. This would respect people’s choice to not take the time to vote (since a vote is recorded automatically), especially since, in my experience, the main reason people choose not to vote is because they feel that it is pointless to do so (because the candidates appear equally rubbish). If voting doesn’t make any difference, then the politicians to be voted between aren’t doing a good enough job. Somehow, the message needs to be sent to the politicians in a language they can understand.

    Spoiled papers wouldn’t count for “None of the Above” or for any candidate, since there would be no way of knowing what the voter intended (assuming it was spoiled in a non-trivial way).

    It always makes me laugh when a politician cites “apathy” as an attempt to evade blame for a poor election result. Apathy is just about the biggest thumbs-down a politician (and the system itself) can receive, for it means they were so bad that they and their actions brought no value to that voter’s life. Therefore an apathy-based poor result is about the biggest indictment that a politician can receive. At least a poor result with a good turnout signifies that the politician tried something – and a poor result with a low turnout for non-apathy reasons could mean just about anything depending on the circumstances.

    I’m not sure whether this enables the scheme to still be called “compulsory voting”, but it strikes me as being a good balance between civic duty and pragmatism. Perhaps it would be more accurately called “compulsory registration”.

    2) If “None of the Above” wins an election in a given constituency, there must be a re-run as soon as practically possible, but none of the politicians who were on the voting form for the original election may stand. Anyone else is free to put themselves forward (either via a party or as an independent). The area will be represented by the incumbent if possible during the intervening time.

    This will force politicians to do a better job and to communicate what they do to their constituents better. Otherwise they could lose their jobs to someone they’ve never heard of before, particularly with “abstainers” effectively voting to remove all the candidates.

    There could be interesting consequences in areas where the constituents are completely disengaged from politics, but at least the politicians who eventually got voted in would actually represent the will of the people, and not just the will of a minority. And if a constituency really couldn’t make its mind up, routine local stuff would get done. My guess is that an NOTA vote would only affect one election year per constituency, and it would primarily affect those constituencies which were badly-served in the first place.

    Incidentally, I live in an area with quite high turnout for national elections (mid-60s%) because people vote to keep in the current MP, but rubbish local elections (low-30s%) because they can’t tell the difference between the candidates.

    When there are no candidates I know anything about (which happened last time there was a local election here, since nobody appeared to be bothered about providing any information whatsoever), I rely on the party affiliation, voting for Independents first (since they usually have minds of their own), and then if I have any votes left over, vote on party lines, as if it was a national or European election (whichever was the most recent – for some reason there’s more information on candidates in those sorts of elections). Not voting was not an option that time, since otherwise I wouldn’t have had a lift into the train station to go to university, and spoiling my paper seemed pretty pointless.

    When there’s information provided, I have always found enough information to make a sensible voting decision.

    I look upon “If you didn’t vote, you can’t criticise” as only applying to the decisions the winning party takes. Since voting cannot change the political structure unless somebody voted in can be bothered to change it, and anyone voted in by definition benefits from the status quo being maintained, anyone (including non-voters) is equally entitled to criticise the structure which the winning party works within, and any other area of politics that was unlikely to be affected by the course of a given election.

    Party membership isn’t realistic for me, since I can’t afford the fees or access the meetings of any of the parties (largely down to decisions the individual parties have made). Standing as an MP or councillor isn’t an option for me either, since I have reason to suspect I may fall foul of an exemption to the right to attempt to become either (yes, some restrictions exist, and affect more people than may be apparent at first glance).

  8. Very interesting comment Alianora. Some interesting ideas about abstention. Do you have any more information about the exemptions to standing? Is there a list online?

  9. The House of Commons Disqualification Act 1975 has a detailed list of the categories of people who cannot stand as an MP. However it is not complete. The short version is that the following groups of people can’t stand as an MP:

    – Anyone who is eligible to be in the House of Lords (including bishops)
    – Anyone who works as a judge
    – Anyone who works for the Immigration Services Tribunal
    – Members of certain statutory boards
    – Senior members of other statutory boards
    – A Lord-Lieutenant or Sheriff for an area containing the constituency for which the individual wishes to stand
    – convicted prisoners with a sentence of over 12 months or who committed an electoral crime
    – non-Commonwealth citizens
    – under-18s (unless Parliament grants a waiver for a particular individual)
    – anyone who has been declared bankrupt (under The Enterprise Act 2002. Note this restriction doesn’t apply to Scotland or Northern Ireland)

    I discovered from a BBC news item on mental health that certain types of mental health problem, if declared, can also prevent someone from being permitted to stand for or maintain the position of MP. It’s not clear how “mental health” is defined for the purposes of the relevant laws (the news article just says they’re old laws), but if the definition was very broad (for instance, if it was interpreted as any condition in the DSM-IV (the standard psychiatrist’s manual)), then I wouldn’t be able to stand because I have Asperger’s Syndrome. And if the laws did block me for running for that position on the grounds of my condition, that would be 0.5% of the population barred from running for the position of MP on its own.