The Ethical Duty to Vote

Posted on April 7, 2011


You may well have already seen the fascinating Globe and Mail article that looks at the likely composition of parliament if only youth voted. It’s enough to make a progressive like me salivate. The Conservatives would be reduced to just forty-six seats. Forty-six! That’s one hundred and eight short of a majority! While the Liberals would win a minority government with one hundred and six seats, they have to bargain for support with fifty-three NDP MPs, sixty Bloc Quebecois MPs, and forty-three Greens. With such a situation, we could look forward to a country where the environment is a priority, money is not funneled into corporate hands for no reason, and it isn’t a criminal offense to be a protester or a refugee. Victimless activities like marijuana use would probably be legal, and we would have a free education system that we can be proud of. Billions of dollars would not go to stupid bullshit like fighter jets, but would instead be spent on reducing income inequality.

Are you excited yet? Good. Now here’s some cold water on your face. Only thirty-seven percent of Canadians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four voted in the last election. On the other hand, sixty-eight percent of Canadians over the age of sixty-five voted in the last election.That demographic would hand the Conservatives would have a whopping majority of one hundred and ninety-two seats. The Liberals would have just one hundred and six. The remainder, a scattering of Quebec seats, would go to the Bloc Quebecois. There would be no seats for the NDP and the Greens. Such a government would probably eliminate all taxes on anyone but the lower class, invade three more Middle-Eastern countries, and outlaw fun.

We are much closer to the latter scenario than the former, and there is no good reason why this should be the case. I’m not going to assume anything about the average age of those who read this blog, but I think it’s safe to say that most of you are of the Anything But Conservative school of thought. That means that you have to vote. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people, particularly youth, who could be helping us defeat the Conservative government, but won’t. The reasons for this fall into two primary categories: Apathy and Utopianism. Apathy both easy and incredibly difficult to dispel: You’ve got to be pretty selfish to not take thirty minutes out of your day for the sake of a better country. Unfortunately, this is really difficult to communicate to such selfish people. I know because I am trying to convince an apathetic friend to vote as I type this. It’s not going well. He’s calling me an asshole. It’s hard to make people care. I welcome your thoughts on the matter, because I’m totally stumped.

Utopianism is a more complex problem. Utopian anti-electionists (for lack of a better term) refuse to take part in a democratic process that does not instantly bring about their ideal society. It can be seen alive and well on websites like that of The Edible Ballot Society. Their manifesto is outdated, but still rings true for the anti-voting crowd:

“Beyond the mainstream drivel about elections, diverse and spontaneous anti-electoral and pro-democracy efforts have arisen in Quebec, building on previous abstention campaigns during elections and referendums. The anti-election efforts, while autonomous, share several common themes: the belief that genuine democracy resides in extra-parliamentary organizations and collectives that positively reflect values of mutual aid, solidarity and self-activity; the idea that electoral politics, as well as parliamentary democracy, are sham processes that only serve to reinforce prevailing power structures; and the confidence that encouraging effective resistance and revolt to capitalism and the state is invariably more valuable than some “x” on a ballot every couple of years.”

Firstly, this reflects a fallacy of false equivalence. While it is true that every political party is in some way shitty, there are some that are far, far shittier than others. Being stabbed in the back by a thumbtack is better than being stabbed in the back by a comically oversized anime sword. Mild to moderate corruption and a few broken promises is much better than a government that tortures Afghans and then covers it up by shutting down parliament. Any ethical person who refuses to vote is giving implicit, if unintentional, support to an unethical government.

More importantly, groups such as the Edible Ballot Society are holding politics to an impossible standard. Unless it is composed entirely of perfectly honest, perfectly compassionate, omnipotent and omniscient superhumans, this movement sees any political party as illegitimate. This is tragic, because by refusing to vote for whichever party best approximates their values, they are effectively handing support to whichever party least approximates their values. By demanding perfection, they are trading in the next best thing for a much worse alternative. The kind of policies brought on by parties that have the luxury of not caring about the youth vote are really, really destructive. Right now, refugees from the MV Sun Sea are in prison because the youth do not vote. 1105 people were arrested at the G20 summit last summer because the youth do not vote. The tar sands receive over a billion dollars in annual subsidies because the youth do not vote. Much of this real-world suffering could be averted if more youth held the welfare of the real people who are affected by bad policy above their own smug satisfaction at refusing to buy into the system.

So vote on May second, or you will be partially responsible for whatever bad stuff our government does after that day.