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Should you vote if your vote doesn’t count? Jun 08

Last night, in the run up to today’s festival of democracy, I tweeted this:

Subsequently, I’ve been pondering whether taking part in an election built on an unfair system gives legitimacy to that system.

There are plenty of countries in the world where opposition groups boycott elections because they don’t believe them to be free and fair. Now I wouldn’t for a minute draw comparisons between our pretty sturdy electoral process and a vote that gave Saddam Hussein 100% support, but the word “fair” is an important one. Campaigns for proportional representation have long boiled that unwieldy description down to “fair votes”, which clearly implies the current system is not fair – and can’t, then, be “free and fair”.

Does that outweigh an abstract notion of “civil responsibility” to take part regardless? Or is there a separate civil responsibility to challenge systems that don’t work? Suffragettes fought for the right to vote (not for me, obviously) but that was also a challenge to an unfair system. That said, I don’t picture the Electoral Reform Society chaining themselves to railings any time soon.

One of this week’s poll projections suggested the election will be decided by 37 seats changing hands. That’s out of 650. Of course, a seat changing party isn’t a definition of good democracy – people absolutely should re-elect an MP (or, by proxy, a government) that they’re happy with. But it highlights how much power a handful of swing voters in a handful of seats have. I live in a pretty safe Labour seat and that means my vote will make little difference one way or the other. On the other hand, in the London elections – using a system the Conservatives have been talking about scrapping because *eyeroll emoji* – I get a second preference for mayor that gives more choice and a London-wide party vote for the Assembly that brings greater plurality of representation.

So I’d say that yes, taking part does legitimise a broken system. But is that a good enough reason not to vote? An ever-falling turnout might flag up to our rulers that something is wrong – but having been elected under the very same system, they have no incentive to change it. The most likely outcome would be the introduction of compulsory voting. That’s a convenient way for politicians to force up turnout without addressing the underlying issue and at the same time conceals disenfranchisement and takes away a personal freedom – the right not to vote.

Elections shouldn’t be about electoral systems: they’re about the economy and taxation and public services and, this time round, how we implement our collective decision to walk the country off a cliff into the English Channel. So if the party you support has no hope of winning in your constituency, there’s a good case for voting tactically for the least worst option. That’s the best choice under our electoral system; it also entrenches the status quo. The more tactical voting, the more skewed a seat becomes towards just two parties and the more tactical voting is required in future. Great.

The only “democratic” route left then is to carry on slogging under the current system and try to elect enough people who are altruistic enough to pursue genuine reform.

None of that fires me up to vote in my safe Labour seat, but I’ve come up with three reasons to do it anyway.

1. Keep buggering on. A tactical vote in my seat would continue to minimise the smaller parties. For one of them to win they need to get into contention and the only way to get them into contention is to vote for them.

2. Short money. My vote (for the Liberal Democrats, if the tweet wasn’t clear) won’t help them win in my seat this time round. I don’t want to talk down their changes but no polling suggests a surprise upset of that scale. But opposition party funding is related to the number of votes cast as well as the number of seats won, so my vote goes a small way to seeing a greater proportion of parliamentary funding going to the party I support.

3. OFCOM. It’s the job of everyone’s favourite media regulator to decide which are “major parties” for the purposes of public elections. In particular this affects the number of election broadcasts a party is allocated and the overall level of coverage given. Broadcasters may also take it into account when putting together debates or other political programming. Overall national vote share is a factor that OFCOM will consider and so maximising this helps to ensure TV and radio coverage, which is important for future growth.

Of course one can argue that the systems underpinning points 2 and 3 are further reinforcing the status quo, but that’s a discussion for another time. I have a vote to cast.

Category: Politics