As I write, my native British Columbia is halfway through an election. As usual, pundits looking for a subject to pronounce upon have noticed the increasing decline in voter turn out in the last couple of decades and taken on the task of lecturing everyone on the importance of voting. Apparently, they never once stop to consider that there may be valid reasons for someone not to vote.
Instead, they assume that the only virtuous choice is to vote. Voting, the pundits insist, is a civic obligation. Or, if it isn’t, then it should be, the way it is in Australia. If you don’t vote, they claim, you have no right to complain about government decisions for the next few years. They also like to point out the fact that, in other parts of the world (and usually there is at least one place people can mention) are fighting for the right to vote – all of which they suggest goes to show that non-voters are irresponsible shirkers who don’t deserve to live in Canada.
The trouble with this rhetoric is that it has gone unexamined long enough that no one notices its fallacies. To start with, currently the only legal obligation that a resident of Canada has is to pay their taxes. In World War Two, conscientious objectors weren’t even obliged to fight; they could do public service instead. Voting, so far, is not an obligation of residency. Nor is it by any means certain that compulsory voting makes for better government or anything besides a smug satisfaction at high voter turnouts.
Similarly, telling people they have no right to complain will do nothing to stop them complaining. Complaining isn’t a right; it’s something people do all the time regardless..
It is true that people are fighting for the vote in other parts of the world, but those situations are not particularly comparable to what is happening in Canada. The Arab Spring, for instance, was a series of revolts against totalitarianism, in which voting was only one aspect of the reforms that many sought. By contrast, the voting decline in Canada is about disillusion or apathy with parliamentary democracy – a problem that is the polar opposite of what is happening in places where the fight is to establish democracy in the first place..
What isn’t usually examined is the fact that voting is no longer the only way to influence government actions. Activism, ranging from polite letter writing and rallies to rioting, is a way of life in British Columbia. At times, these various forms of activism can be highly effective, as the protests against new pipelines in the province demonstrate. An activist might validly argue that they have a stronger influence on provincial policy through their activism than they could have through voting.
For other non-voters I know, their choice is a matter of conscience. Politicians, they argue, are only superficially in charge of the province. The real influence is in the hands of non-elected bureaucrats. That being so, elections are a fraud that create only the illusion of democracy. If that is so, they ask, then as people who want to behave ethically, they choose not to participate in an exercise that dis-empowers the members of the public while pretending to empower them.
Another non-voter I know was accused of a crime largely to further other people’s careers. They contracted post-traumatic stress disorder as a result, and to this day they believe that the governments of British Columbia and Canada failed them. To vote, they maintain, would be to support the forces that came close to destroying their lives — to tacitly acknowledge that the government had the right to abuse them.
None of these reasons for not voting are trivial or irresponsible. If anything, they are ethically-based reasons. You may or may not consider them logical or sufficient, but neither are they easily dismissed — unless, of course, you have closed your mind to any beliefs other than your own. Yet such motivations are never even considered when people argue that everyone should vote.
That’s not surprising, though. If such cases were considered, then one of the main causes of voter apathy would have to be addressed – the fact that politicians, on the whole, are out of touch with the public and its concerns.
And if people admitted this well-known fact publicly, who knows? There just might be a call to change the way politics are done. In the end, it’s far easier to blame those who are disillusioned than to suggest how the political process might re-engage them.