Is voting in a British general election a right, a duty, as most people think? Was it worth registering to vote in 2017? Many Western countries are trying out electronic, internet-mediated forms of voting, with the vast majority of them assuming that the ubiquity of social media and general internet use, and the ease and convenience of online voting, will increase voter turnout. The case seems pretty obvious. It can be a pain having to go to a voting station. It might be raining. Hell, it might be snowing. Voting might involve a long journey, for instance if you live in a rural location. And voting by post is a bit of a faff.
A recent BBC technology report (spring 2017) highlighted the situation in Estonia.
Estonia is the only country where online voting has become widely used. In the most recent parliamentary elections almost one in three votes was cast online, but officials admit the system has not boosted turnout. “It didn’t take people from the no-voting area because that’s not enough,” Priit Vinkel, head of the electoral office in Estonia, told Newsbeat. “Having a novel, convenient method of voting is not enough…”
So the indisputable convenience of online voting – that simple act of pressing a button – was not enough to increase voter participation. Voter turnout remained exactly the same.
But voter turnout has nothing to do with voting methods. It is typical of established political thinkers to assume that the problem is one of logistics, since they are beholden to the standard view: you must vote, it is your national duty, women died for the vote, therefore you must vote. The standard view blames voters themselves for their apathy, and this view is much amplified by the media. It is typical too of those enamoured of the status quo to encourage belief in a system that specifically and deliberately disenfranchises the majority of people in Britain. Both Labour and the Tories benefit from keeping the first-past-the-post system, and both parties have continually refused to seriously consider a fair system. When in 2010 the LibDems were allowed a referendum on PR, the Tories knew perfectly well that the entrenched system would win out. All they had to do was play on fears of coalition, national chaos etc then let the apathy created by the chasm between voters and politicians do the rest of the work. Easy.
This is how the apathy discussion typically goes around election time. Register now! Too many young people don’t register and don’t vote. You must register! If you don’t register, you can’t vote, and you can’t complain.
Let’s shift this mode of argument to another sphere to expose how ludicrous it is. Suppose Britain is divided up into 600+ localities in which the relevant factor is whether or not individuals have green eyes. You’ll be allowed a meaningful vote or some other interaction if green eyed individuals are around half of the population of your locality, but if you don’t like the status quo the system will blame you for not taking part, even though eye colour is a factor determined by heredity. Or, you could wear contact lenses. Register now! You must register for contact lenses!
Just as having green eyes is a factor of heredity and nothing to do with politics, so living in a particular constituency is nothing to do with politics. You could for instance live in North Shropshire, which has been true blue since 1835. That’s before Queen Victoria. I mean, we’re talking Blackadder territory here…
Voting in a general election is a vote in an approximate direction only – a system where we give credence to our leaders in the vain hope that they will get on with it in a decent manner; without fiddling their expenses, for instance. This is partial democracy. A two party first-past-the-post system is identical in all meaningful qualities to a one party system. Both systems maintain a stranglehold on the nation through an explicitly unfair system; two sides of the same bad penny. Both Labour and the Tories exploit first-past-the-post and the consequent abyss between individuals and politicians in a quite unscrupulous manner. The British electoral system is just about fit for the 19th century.
Voter apathy has nothing to do with voting methods, electronic, internet, pencil and paper or otherwise. Voter apathy is not the fault of voters. Voter apathy is caused by a political system utterly unfit for purpose, one that deliberately disenfranchises people then blames them for their lack of interest.
Some people say, well, if you vote against the main party in a safe constituency at least you’ve had your say and you’ve added to the numbers of the losing candidates, which is noticeable. That’s pure self-delusion. Nobody remembers who came second. In a first-past-the-post system nobody gives a damn who came second.
Did you register to vote? Did you follow the lead of everybody exhorting you to register, in social media memes, newspaper articles or pieces to camera, all of which failed to mention the context? Well, if you happened to live in a marginal seat, then fine. But of the 650 seats in the House of Commons around 200 this year are generally considered to be marginal, and therefore meaningful.
Makes sense to you? Thought not. Welcome to 19th century Britain.