Why You Should Vote

Posted on May 1, 2011

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I suspect that at this late stage, virtually anybody reading this will have made up their minds regarding their planned vote. Many, like me, will have already voted in advance polls. Campaigns are winding down, the local candidates are tweeting their last answers to questions, and Sun News is engaging in some last-ditch libel against the NDP. I don’t think that my little corner of the blogosphere is likely to persuade anybody to vote any particular way at this point. I’m therefore going to once again turn my attention towards those whose opinion can perhaps be swayed: Those who do not plan to vote.

I’ve encountered my share of anti-voting sentiment during this election, and although advance poll turnout is reaching record highs, I still fear that apathy could hand the Conservatives a majority. I could offer an impassioned plea to my fellow youth, but there are plenty of those out there already, and they frequently get dismissed as manipulative guilt trips. Instead, I’m going to go through a brief list of the most common arguments against voting, and answer each one. Here goes.

1) My Vote Doesn’t Matter

Steve Levitt of Freakonomics made this claim during a Q and A podcast a while back. Levitt is a master of numbers and his analysis of the numbers is sound. Any given person’s vote is unlikely to swing a local race, much less the election as a whole. So why vote? Well, it comes down to the ethics of collective action. The rationale that your vote won’t actually decide anything is just as valid for everybody else as it is for you. So if you can refrain from voting on those grounds, then so can everybody else. What, then, would become of our democracy? If we shouldn’t vote because our contribution to the process is insignificant, then why should any individual person live their life in an environmentally sustainable way? Why should you give a comparatively small amount of money to a charity with a revenue of billions? Why should any single person, whether soldier or civilian, risk their neck in the fight for democracy abroad? These are all drops in their respective buckets, but they are nevertheless valued because these buckets can only be filled by a very large number of drops. It is narcissistic to refrain from voting on the grounds that you cannot singlehandedly change anything.

2) All the Parties are the Same

This one makes me a bit angry because it is, at its heart, an assertion of privilege. Stephen Harper and Jack Layton may appear to be the same to a young, white trust fund anarchist who is fortunate enough to be both above victimization by bad government policy, and above the need for government assistance. This is not the case for many other people. I’m sure that the currently imprisoned refugees who came to Canada on the MV Sun Sea would see some difference between a xenophobic party that voted, for their incarceration and a party that did not. A homeless man would probably see a difference between a party that wants him swept off the streets and a party that wants to build affordable housing. And an aboriginal person, living on a reserve with no water, would probably disagree if you said that all the parties are the same on the grounds that one particular party has consistently ignored their plight. So please spare me this line of argument. It does nothing but betray a lack of perspective.

3) I Don’t Want to Participate in Our Flawed System

If you want an electoral system that does away with the antiquated first past the post method and its associated flaws, then I’m right there with you. Let’s vote for one of the parties that is in favour of electoral reform. Any change to our system will be initiated in the house of commons and then probably ratified by referendum. If everybody who objects to the system refrains from voting on those grounds, then these people will have no voice in the only institution empowered to change the system, and so the system will never change. If it sounds absurd that you have to participate in, and therefore legitimize, a flawed system in order to change it, then by all means refrain from voting. I’m sure that the aforementioned victims of bad government, recognizing the superiority of your abstract philosophical reasoning, will resign themselves to their government-imposed suffering.

If your concerns with the system are more radical in nature, and you would like to smash up the state in favour of self-organizing communes or some other thing, then you are essentially talking about the destruction of Canadian democracy in favour of your personal favourite political and economic system. This is an indirectly authoritarian sentiment because you want to impose your personal utopia on the world without seeking the consent of the vast majority of people who are invested in our current representative democracy. Nobody has the right to do this. Radical social change could be a great thing, but it cannot be justified unless it is chosen in a fair and open election. If you want radical change, then you should vote for a radical candidate.

4) I Don’t Support Any of the Candidates

This sentiment is well-represented in blogs such as Strongly Typed:

“A prevailing argument against not voting is that you’re not sending a message that you aren’t represented; you’re sending the message “do whatever; I don’t care.” Again, this is assuming that not voting is caused by, or indicates, apathy. I think this is too sweeping a statement. If I’ve considered every candidate, but have been put off by each one of them enough that I’d rather not vote for any of them, that is caring deeply about what it means to personally endorse someone for office.”

This would be reasonable if there was a “none of the above” option on the ballot which would open the electoral process to new entries. As it is, however, voting for nobody effectively serves to support whichever candidate you support the least, because you are taking votes away from those who might otherwise oppose them. A refusal to choose the lesser of two evils is essentially an endorsement of the greater.

I’ve been noticing that various right-leaning bloggers and columnists have started to downplay the vote mob phenomenon, dismissing it as a leftist tactic to get more youth to vote for leftist candidates. While there may be a grain of truth to this observation, turnabout is fair play. Why would right-wingers want to suppress the youth vote if not to inflate the relative importance of older, more reliable voters, who are more likely to vote Conservative? Don’t let this kind of cynicism win Harper a majority. The people at Harper’s most recent rally, who shouted down a journalist’s question by wharrgarbling about the CBC, will be voting in this election. The various Conservative bases, which include climate deniers, homophobes, fiscal regressives, racists, and a lot of generally ignorant, spiteful people will be voting in this election. So should you.

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