The Power of Not Voting

This post is an exercise in rhetoric, and while the author does endorse the arguments herein, individuals should contemplate their decision carefully before deciding to refrain from casting a vote and instead consider a redoubling of efforts to voice dissent in other ways.

 

Sometimes one is inclined to express dissatisfaction with political order and government decision making. In the myriad of information and popular opinion, it is increasingly easy to see one’s own views sinking into the depths of obscurity and wonder if there is any way to be heard. For those of us who have been raised under democratic regimes the expectation was that agency could be expressed through the political selection practised in secret ballots. Unfortunately, no proportional system of representation can even pretend to offer any real translation of this agency.

The selection of candidates must pass through the filter of an archaic party system whereby voters are coalesced into doubting their own choices. One is never sure if they should vote nationally, locally, regionally, based solely on party policy, personal belief, character, candidate or by random number generator. Sometimes the latter seems to offer the best chances at just rule.

The power of not voting comes through in several ways. Political parties receive funding based on votes received. Not voting means denying the party funding your vote would imply. Foreign nationals are also reasonable in assuming democratic governments are representative of their citizens, unless their mandate is questionable. In the current Canadian federal system the formation of majority government does not imply that the majority of Canadians have cast ballots in favour of that government’s rule, or even that the majority of votes were cast for that party. Since seats are elected regionally and then assembled nationally to decide which party will form the government, there is no guarantee of truly democratic representation in even a majority parliamentary government. Ever. Not voting further reduces the legitimacy (both real and perceived) of any elected government. If voter turnout is sixty percent, even a truly democratic government elected from that pool would only represent thirty percent of the eligible population. In our system there is not even that guarantee. How can it be assumed that the demos rule when potentially only one quarter or less of the population acted in the selection of this government? And what of the agency lost in representative government? When a mere faction of the population acts on a scale of minutes to months, once in a period of years, how can we have any guarantee that the means of democratic rule are not being completely circumvented in the intervening time?

Then: Old white men in suits.

I was never given an offer of citizenship. I was never consulted in the practice or formation of my government, except within the unrealistic and undemocratic constraints of the modern institution of voting. Were I aboriginal, I would be in my right mind to completely deny any legitimacy for the Canadian government. As a non-aboriginal that government underpins my only claim to legitimate occupation of land and territories which were once held in common.

The comforts and guarantees of modern (western) society are many and alluring. Yet it has become apparent that these goods have come at an insufferable cost to human and natural well being. In our endeavour for comfort we have invented the sweatshop, the atom bomb, the ubiquitous automobile, credit fraud, default-swapping and many other completely unnecessary ills.

Now: Old white men in suits.

We are living under merely conventional political structures. Their only means of maintaining legitimacy is to act as representative for the demos. This phenomenon of democracy has yet to exist outside of the tribal structure. Our government is illegitimate and has consistently failed to act in the interest of the people. It is time to dismantle. It is time to stop the wheels of production to reorient them in the right direction.

With active non-violent resistance we can change. Not voting is one step. Getting your friends not to is more important. How low would the numbers have to go before a government would lose representation within the UN? Forty-percent, thirty, twenty, ten?? Unless this government (Canada) and countless others undergo drastic changes that reduce their waste of resources and human potential, we must use every peaceful means possible to disrupt and redirect their business. Protest, write letters, stage sit-ins and blockade legislative offices. Enforce your right to peaceful assembly and political demonstration. Don’t let the dangerous precedent set in Toronto and elsewhere become the norm, and return our nations to the idealism and optimism which are our only means for survival.

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12 responses to “The Power of Not Voting

  1. Very thought-provoking post – ripe for discussion. What I read, however, glosses over some significant contradictions expressed in the text. I was talking about this very topic recently with some friends who voiced something very similar to what you have written here, so I will quickly describe my position.
    1 – My first objection is the notion that non-voting is a more powerful political action than voting. I acknowledge that the gesture does contain a certain weigh in its own right, but the reality is that you need to play the game to change the game. The system is of course far from perfect (i.e., represents an ideal) and much resistance and change are necessary, but not without a clearly delineated alternative — otherwise, you’re just ranting and complaining and that’s simply not good enough.
    2 – You illustrate the representational inadequacies of the current Canadian system (specifically, the inability to guarantee absolute democratic representation), yet you’ve not addressed the problems therein. Why would you want democratic representation?
    3 – You complain of not having a say in your government and the proposed solution is to… choose to not exercise one (of many, and by no means the most important) ways to exert [some] control. Voting is not the be all and end all of democratic citizenship, but it is a part of it.
    4 – There are costs to the quality of life we enjoy in the West, no doubt, but do they truly outweigh them? Your selections of “unnecessary ills” is rather tentative and remains unexamined (ex: the atom bomb cannot be considered without taking atomic energy and technology into consideration – a complicated calculus I assure you).
    5 – To say, “Our government is illegitimate and has consistently failed to act in the interest of the people. It is time to dismantle. It is time to stop the wheels of production to reorient them in the right direction,” begs for explication. If the government has failed to act in the interest of the people to whose interests does it act? Are these not the people? What is “the right direction”?
    Finger pointing and withdrawal from the process are certainly easier than actual positive action, like taking part in debate, writing, speaking, engaging with the people and the (always terribly complicated) politics of the issues that matter. Choosing not to vote does represents the behaviors of those who’ve given up the struggle, not “[a return] to the idealism and optimism which are our only means for survival.” Lets not fool ourselves into thinking that this sort of “non-action” is making the people who recognize the genuine complexity of social organization and economics take notice — We need creativity, ambition, hard work, and optimistic minds applied to the problems/issues/politics, not withdrawn from them.

  2. Like it or not, Canadians are voting less than generations prior. A more useful debate would attempt to explain why this “democractic deficit” is widening and what are its implications. Much work is avaliable here from Canadian political scientists and Elections Canada.

    For example:
    http://www.mcgill.ca/files/politicalscience/course07_poli320.pdf

    But to bite into the bitter fruit of this ripe discussion too, I should confess:

    I don’t vote.

    Why?

    Because I don’t feel a civic duty and it seems irrational to take time to go and wait in line at the polling station for a ballot that will likely not be the deciding one.

    Because if I did have a civic duty there are not any options that I would ever want to vote for. I want radical change and while the resemblence between Layton and Lenin is uncanny and mutally mustached, the NDP is as “socialist” as Barack Obama was falsely labelled.

    Because the costs of our quality of life are outwieghted, particularly when they are externalized to the global environment and underdeveloped states.

    Because I don’t believe you need to have an alternative to criticize the status quo. I think criticism is productive and a vital democractic value in itself, and must not be tied to a discussion of alternatives. For example, the vast majority (and most correct and valuable) of the work of Karl Marx is not exploring alternatives of a post-capitalist society, but identifying how capitalism emerged, works and why it is bad. If pressed, I would offer Cuba as a alternative I would enjoy, because they don’t vote but in many ways Cubans are much more democratically engaged than Canadians through educated debates and discussion in community networks that inform government policy.

    Because like Sean I was never given an offer of citizenship. So fuck Canada.

    Because “creativity, ambition, hard work, and optimistic minds” are more productivity applied to dissent and direct action than voting and does not “represent the behaviors of those who’ve given up the struggle” but “those who recognize the genuine complexity of social organization and economics” and are “compatible with actual positive action, like taking part in debate, writing, speaking, engaging with the people and the (always terribly complicated) politics of the issues that matter.” I don’t vote and I just debated, wrote and engaged with people and the politics of the issues that matter – right now.

    And because George Carlin can answer Eric’s challenge to clarify whose interest the government acts in: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hYIC0eZYEtI

    • Yes, this is indeed getting longwinded, but remains interesting to discuss. I will be brief in my rebuttal to what I see are the major points of contention.

      2 – Sean says, “[the Canadian government] is legitimate only insofar as it is representative of the entire population.” This is an ideal (like Beauty or Truth), not the practice. Legitimacy is not, and indeed cannot, be based on whether it meets an (impossible) ideal. Our government is Democratic as much as law is Justice and science is Truth.

      3 – I do not agree that to vote is to give consent to all past actions taken by that form of government. What you seem to be suggesting is that we should change the form of government every time those involved act in ways we do not condone. Again, this may seem like a swell idea in a world of non-conflicting interests, and fully informed and participating populace, but this is currently not the reality. This is not to say that such a world would not be desirable, but it neglects the complexity of the issues.

      4 – Oops, that sentence/idea was poorly formulated. What I was suggesting is that it seems you’re calling for directionless action in the fear that to do otherwise would amount to paralyzed inaction. I am not sure if I follow your analogy to sport – good plays are conducted within the rules of the game. Choosing to disengage from participation in the game (even if the rules suck) won’t be fun for anyone who wants to have a good time. (I think this analogy is exhausted.)

      ps, In regards to the revolutions of 1848 – I blame it on the French.

      • I worry I am being grossly misunderstood and it’s rather disheartening.
        “Our government is Democratic as much as law is Justice and science is Truth.” This sort of view scares me. A lot. These institutions exist *only* for the pursuit of these ideals. When they stray they become simply convoluted mechanisms of oppression. (Think Eugenics, Apartheid). Your pragmatic views are in my mind quite dangerous.
        My analogies have been misunderstood as well, please consider re-reading, or giving further contemplation to the dualism of intense planning but also dynamic action within the moment.
        Talk is cheap and type is worthless, perhaps we can move into an even more painful and broader discussion of the value of this type of forum.

        Eric, I’m glad we have at least this way to discuss interesting ideas, but I’m thinking more and more that it’s a sad substitute for the progress that could be made talking for even an hour face to face.

  3. Thank you Eric, thoughtful as always 😉

    First I would like to point out that while I am advocating non-voting, this by no means infers non-action. Actually you should note that the latter part of my rant is a call to action. I have also chosen to bring it up in a very public forum which I had hoped would raise some discussion. So far so good.

    I am not so much interested in inadequacies as I am in legitimacy. Where does the power of our current government come from? Under the democratic ideal it arises from the mandate of the people. Our representative democracy is given its scope, mandate and legitimacy directly from the queen (and I mean here the history of legislation that led to the formation of the current Canadian government). In a convoluted way, our democracy is sustained by divine rule. I’m not attacking the monarchy, more the idea that a certain organization (national governments) are given exclusive mandates to rule, and that their right to do so and the force of their decision making goes (relatively) unquestioned.

    The ‘calculus’ of particular technological developments is of course wrought with problems, and expands the problem beyond nationalistic governments to society and economics at large. Perhaps that should be left to a broader discussion on its own.

    I have chosen not to vote because it gives implicit consent on the form and actions taken by government. This is true even if I vote for a particular party that has absolutely no representation in parliament. By voting at all I am ‘throwing my chips in’ with that particular system. My decision not to vote in recent federal elections stems from my dissatisfaction with government actions internationally over the past 15-20 years (i.e. most of my waking life). If I’m driving and suddenly realize I’m heading for a steep embankment my first instinct is to turn away. This reflex is important; if I spent too much time thinking about the best course of action I may find myself with the worst of all possible outcomes. I believe we are faced with too many potential disasters to take our time any more. I don’t know the right direction, or even what needs to change. Yet there is a feeling amongst many that we are approaching many dangerous limits (climate change, pandemic illness, nuclear proliferation, mass extinction, proliferation of dangerous biotechnologies, population growth, global fresh water availability, not to mention the deplorable living standards of nearly a third of the world’s current population). The most important question for me is are we crawling or catapulting, and what can we do to slow or avert unnecessary hardship.

    • Interesting.

      1 – You are right to point out that non-voting should not be equated to non-action. Political action takes a myriad of forms with voting being but one. And yes, you do propose a call to action – but action to what? Although I will certainly emphasize the fact that alternatives are available [in theory], I am not naive enough to believe they are necessarily better.

      2 – Legitimacy is a curious issue. Personally, I am a pragmatist at heart. I don’t much care for symbolic, and metaphysical, notions of ownership and power. The power of our current government comes from our compliance towards an inherited system of governance (via the queen). But it is not the system itself that has power (or any such “divine rule”).

      3 – Voting, to me, is *explicit* consent on the form (but not the actions) taken by the current system of governance. This is the nature of [democratic] participation. The connection you assume between the number of votes a party receives and specific international policy is tenuous at best. Belief in this connection may actually provide a buffer by which we can absolve ourselves of more committed political action: “Well, *I* didn’t vote for him…”

      4 – Radical action informed by gut reactions may be an effective tactic for quick (and often brutal) reform, but it is never substantial or lasting. Your analogy suggests paralysis; your proposed course of action calls for blind (pro/re)-gress while withdrawing from sustained reform and engagement.

      5 – “The most important question for me is are we crawling or catapulting, and what can we do to slow or avert unnecessary hardship.” Agreed. I think we’re certainly catapulting and we need dialogue and participation to find out where we want to end up.

  4. “Because I don’t feel a civic duty and it seems irrational to take time to go and wait in line at the polling station for a ballot that will likely not be the deciding one.”

    Every raindrop raises the ocean.

  5. At risk of this discussion going on too long (shall we move things to the intellectual bedroom of essay exchange?), I will take issue quickly with only points two, three and four.
    2 – When I speak of legitimacy I am taking what I would consider a pragmatist’s position as well. In my mind the mandate and the Queen and Governor General do not legitimate the Canadian government. It is legitimate only insofar as it is representative of the entire population. If in practical evaluation it is not achieving this goal of representation, it loses all legitimacy as a democratic regime. This is essentially what distinguishes democratic rule from all other forms of rule.
    3 – Voting is in my mind explicit consent on the form of government, as well as explicit consent to all past actions (or at least those of the past few governments), as well as explicit consent on all the actions of the elected government, assuming your vote was cast for that party and its national policy. Yet by even voting for the opposition you give implicit consent to the actions of any government, regardless of the party or however contrary to your views its actions may be.
    4 – “Radical action informed by gut reactions may be an effective tactic for quick (and often brutal) reform, but it is never substantial or lasting. Your analogy suggests paralysis; your proposed course of action calls for blind (pro/re)-gress while withdrawing from sustained reform and engagement.”
    – Your two sentences are somewhat conflicting (“quick (brutal) reform . . . paralysis . . . blind (pro/re)-gress”), do you think I am calling for thoughtless action or paralyzed inaction? All I can do is analogize more, returning to where the idea first came to me. You all know shield country, some of you have seen how I like to ride on rocks. I rarely follow a trail, and often get stuck. Yet there is an interesting (literal) balancing act; too slow and balance is lost and even the smallest slopes become insurmountable, or too fast and the harsh granite will not be forgiving if you fall. May the sports analogies about (maybe we should bring Raph in here??), but it’s careful and constant planning followed by decisive action, not unlike a play in football (both kinds), baseball, hockey and racing of all kinds.

    Thank you for your help, both of you, in firming up my ideas: (1) Democratic governments in the 21st century cannot rely on historical legitimacy, but must reaffirm their legitimacy as representatives of public will and well being. (2) Voting within a democratic regime implies various levels of consent that democratic citizens are likely not aware of. The consent is intangible, but the fault is real. (3) Action by democratic regimes, especially on the international stage, must be carefully planned and then swiftly and decisively accomplished. Ill planned or executed endeavours case unnecessary suffering and waste precious resources.
    I would like to suggest this refined topic area for more deliberate discussion. Eric, Dan, or anyone else reading; would you be interested in taking a reprieve for the weekend to submit a more concerted effort next week? We seem to have struck a nerve.

    P.S. Every raindrop does indeed raise the ocean, unless counterbalanced by a carbon tonnage that simply causes it to evaporate 😉

  6. Yes, this is indeed getting longwinded, but remains interesting to discuss. I will be brief in my rebuttal to what I see are the major points of contention.

    2 – Sean says, “[the Canadian government] is legitimate only insofar as it is representative of the entire population.” This is an ideal (like Beauty or Truth), not the practice. Legitimacy is not, and indeed cannot, be based on whether it meets an (impossible) ideal. Our government is Democratic as much as law is Justice and science is Truth.

    3 – I do not agree that to vote is to give consent to all past actions taken by that form of government. What you seem to be suggesting is that we should change the form of government every time those involved act in ways we do not condone. Again, this may seem like a swell idea in a world of non-conflicting interests, and fully informed and participating populace, but this is currently not the reality. This is not to say that such a world would not be desirable, but it neglects the complexity of the issues.

    4 – Oops, that sentence/idea was poorly formulated. What I was suggesting is that it seems you’re calling for directionless action in the fear that to do otherwise would amount to paralyzed inaction. I am not sure if I follow your analogy to sport – good plays are conducted within the rules of the game. Choosing to disengage from participation in the game (even if the rules suck) won’t be fun for anyone who wants to have a good time. (I think this analogy is exhausted.)

    ps, In regards to the revolutions of 1848 – I blame it on the French.

  7. May I just say that if the conservatives are found to be in contempt of parliament and the Canadian populace reelects them (be it minority or *shudder*, otherwise) I will seriously consider emigrating to Benghazi.

  8. Pingback: Shame Harper – Vote Rhino! « The Unqualified Theorist

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