Is it worth voting?

If, like me, you have a reputation among your friends for being particularly knowledgeable about politics, you probably find that when election time comes they turn to you for advice on how to vote. But while I may have more interest and knowledge in politics than some of my friends, I am not really the sort of person to tell people how they should vote.

Although I make it known that my sympathies lie with the Liberal Democrats (as the latest addition to the sidebar indicates), I don’t push it far. At the end of the day it’s a personal decision that should not be made for someone else.

As such, my friends possibly did not get as much guidance as they were expecting. But they were probably more surprised that I sometimes suggested that they perhaps shouldn’t vote.

I may well offer that sort of advice no matter what seat I was speaking in, but it is particularly well-suited to my constituency of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. The incumbent here is Gordon Brown. In the 2005 election, he got 58% of the votes, and you would imagine even in the worst case scenario for Labour it is about as safe as seats get. According to the Voter Power Index, the average voter in Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath has “the equivalent of 0.009 votes”.

That is one of the reasons why I am actively involved in the Liberal Democrat campaign in neighbouring Dunfermline and West Fife, where the contest is much closer. I have a much greater chance of affecting the outcome there than by casting my vote here.

The statistic that I love to tell my friends is that you are more likely to be killed on your way to the polling station than you are to cast the deciding vote. Bringing up the idea of abstaining is certainly a good excuse to wheel out my dissertation, and I have recommended to some of my friends that they should read it! For one thing, by reading it you can find out the morbid statistic, find out the meaning of ‘rational irrationality’ and more.

I am still madly proud of my dissertation — partly because I find the subject so fascinating. Why do people vote when it is apparently against their interests to do so? If you happen to fancy a read of it, it’s available to download — although I should warn you that it’s all in economics-speak!

I have previously written about the notion that abstaining might be the good option, contrary to received wisdom. The idea has not always been welcomed!


  1. Actually it is worth it. I always think so anyway because I think it preserves my right to moan. IAlthough I’ve spent a lot of my life in places where my vote for a Liberal Democrat candidate hasn’t elected a Liberal Democrat MP, nor even come that close, I think that if I give up and think it’s all pointless, nothing will ever change.

    This time, your vote might change things, though. Sure, I concede that John Mainland, good guy that he is isn’t going to beat Gordon Brown. Nor is anybody else. But every vote for the Lib Dems strenghtens Nick Clegg’s hand in the event of a hung parliament and makes it more likely that we will get the change to our electoral system that ensures that there are no more safe seats and everyone’s votes will count.

    Your vote could be the one that puts Labour in third place. How good would that be? This is the first election I can remember when the 3 big parties are in the margin of error in the polls. All to play for, I’d say.

  2. When I’ve had a drink I do love to lecture people on politics and how they might want to vote. On more than one occasion I have berated the SNP in the chip van outside Harlem/McSquintys in Kirkcaldy.

    The rest of the time I just stick with the “you’re lucky to be able to vote and you should use it”, even if its spoiling the ballot.

  3. Graeme — I’m not advising anyone to do anything. Although obviously I would prefer it if more people voted for the Liberal Democrats, and actively try to persuade others to do so, as I said it is ultimately a personal decision.

    I do feel that, if you have no particularly strong views, or are undecided, then it is not worth voting. It is not even worth bothering to spoil your ballot, unless that is particularly what you want to do.

    I think the fashion for guilt-tripping people into voting is dangerous in my view. In fact, I can scarcely think of anything more dangerous than advising people to vote even if they are undecided or possibly under-informed — not least because it is almost certainly not in their interests to do so.

  4. I will be voting out of principle. For one thing, my constituency has that rare thing, an MP who is some good at the job. Secondly, exercising the right to vote activates the right to complain. At least if you vote, you a) tried to change who represented you or b) voted for the individual who represented you on a misleading basis – either way you have grounds to complain.

    I also find it interesting that in my constituency at least, the worst candidates seem prepared to say the least about themselves.

    And if getting killed on the way to the polling station is such a worry, there’s always postal voting 😉

  5. I’ve considered abstaining but have concluded that if there is no reasonable voter choice (really unlikely) then a spoilt paper is a better option as you have at least turned up and done something! It announces dissatisfaction.

    For me I’m voting Lib Dem because we need electoral change so that everyone is represented. My reasoning is in my own blog post

  6. I really enjoyed reading your dissertation Duncan. Many thanks for sharing. I do find it amazing that so many people choose to vote when doing so is seemingly so irrational. I lean towards the ‘rational irrationality’ explanation and its religion analogy.

    I wonder if the percentage of political scientists who choose to vote is significantly lower than the percentage of the general population who choose to vote?!