Thursday 23 May 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Is your vote really worth casting at all?'

There is an infinitesimally small chance of your vote making a difference, but Irish voters ignore this logic, writes Liam Weeks

'Likewise, high turnout lets politicians off the hook. Voting endorses the political system. It perpetuates the myth that elections are an adequate check on the power of the government, and it also justifies the government's actions' (stock photo)
'Likewise, high turnout lets politicians off the hook. Voting endorses the political system. It perpetuates the myth that elections are an adequate check on the power of the government, and it also justifies the government's actions' (stock photo)

For those of you who still like to get their sports news on the wireless rather than a Twitter feed, you'll know match commentators often make reference to the presence or otherwise of a "great crowd".

I'm often puzzled at what inspires the use of this adjective to describe a bunch of supporters. Is it a great thing so many people are spending hundreds on attending a sporting event where they will be consuming less than healthy food and drinks?

Would it be better if the crowd who claim to love the game were actually playing it instead of watching it?

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In the field of politics, we hear the same mantra used when it comes to voting. There is much cheerleading when turnout is high, when a great crowd turns up to cast a vote.

Over the next few weeks you'll be reminded of the normative value placed on such a crowd. You'll be told it is your duty to vote in the elections. You'll be told people died to give you the vote, and many are still deprived of this opportunity in other countries. You'll also be told if you are disillusioned with the system, the only means of effecting change is to vote. You'll be told "every vote counts".

But, how valid are these claims? Is the great crowd really something to celebrate?

Take those who supposedly died for our vote. The attitude towards democratic elections of many in the War of Independence was ambiguous at best. Sinn Fein conspired to ensure no one got to cast a vote at the 1921 elections as no one ran against any of its 124 candidates, who were all elected unopposed.

At the following year's elections, it attempted a similar tactic. Although Sinn Fein was by then bitterly divided over the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, its two leaders, Michael Collins and Eamon de Valera, formed a pact.

They agreed neither the anti-treaty nor pro-treaty side would run candidates against each other, to ensure no opposition to Sinn Fein would be successful, depriving many voters from being able to have their say on the treaty.

Even when the pro-treaty side won a clear majority, it didn't stop De Valera from claiming "the majority have no right to do wrong".

He and his anti-treaty comrades ignored the verdict of the people, whose vote they had supposedly fought for, and plunged the country into the chaos and bloodshed of a civil war less than a fortnight after the 1922 election.

Such were the dubious democratic credentials on which our State was founded.

Of course, democracy has stabilised since those turbulent years, but does that mean your vote makes a difference?

You may as well tell everyone they are going to win the lottery.

Just as the statistical odds of doing so are extremely, extremely slim, so the probability of any one single vote making a difference is also tiny. Take last year's referendum on abortion as an example. More than two million voted, so the odds of one vote being the decisive ballot that swung the result was less than one in two million.

Your odds are better when it comes to voting for candidates in local constituencies, but there is still an infinitesimally small chance of your vote making a difference, a chance so small that, were it any other activity, you would most likely desist and abstain.

But Irish voters ignore this logic and vote in their masses. Turnout has averaged more than 70pc at Dail elections. Why do we behave in this seemingly irrational manner? Is it because we believe that it is only through voting that we can engineer political change?

I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but revolutions are rarely caused by voting. They are more likely to be the product of actions outside the ballot box, when people realise elections are not the best means of bringing about radical reform.

One of the problems with lauding high levels of engagement with elections is that it lets people off the hook. It lets citizens off.

When people vote for "change they can believe in", such as those supporting Barack Obama in the US in 2008, casting a ballot is the extent of their civic duty.

Voting doesn't make you a good citizen. It is probably the least effort you can do for society. But the fallacy that high turnout is good allows citizens to forgo their duties. Their participation ends at the polling station as they wait for the elected to transform society for them, rather than engage in civic duties which could bring about real change.

Likewise, high turnout lets politicians off the hook. Voting endorses the political system. It perpetuates the myth that elections are an adequate check on the power of the government, and it also justifies the government's actions.

Ever wonder why dictators want to ensure 100pc support for their candidacy at elections with 100pc turnout? It allows them to validate their rule and their tyranny.

The last thing dictators want is mass abstention at an election. This could be seen as a rejection of their reign, one which could even trigger a revolution. This is why non-voting should be seen as an act of expression, in the same manner as voting - and why those who are disillusioned with the political system might wish to consider non-voting over voting for an apparent alternative.

Consider what happens when great crowds stop turning up to sporting events. The audience might moan about the quality of the fare, but it is only when they stop going through the turnstiles that the authorities react and propose change.

I am not saying you shouldn't vote. Just that people should be aware of what their vote is not achieving, and that it's not much of a civic act to choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Getting citizens involved in how their country is run is a good thing, but, just as going to a sporting event does little for one's waistline or the overall health of society, so too should you realise your one vote will not make a bit of difference to the political system or improve your quality of life.

In ancient Athens, the birthplace of democracy, there was a far greater sense of civic duty and responsibility because it operated on a radical system of sortition - offices were filled by a lottery of citizens, with everyone eligible to enter, and no-one could serve more than one term.

There was no sense of elections being a meaningless process to endorse the power of a ruling elite. Instead, elections were about people ruling themselves. This, after all, is what democracy literally means - rule by the people. And it worked. This is why, more than 2,000 years later, many still place Athenian democracy on a pedestal, an acme of aspiration.

Imagine if we had rule by sortition in Ireland. There would be no misplaced discussion about the legitimacy of turnout. There would be no bias in representation in favour of pale, stale males. There would be no expensive campaigns, no promises, no lies. Policies could be made based on merit rather than electoral consideration.

Of course, there is little chance of such change coming about while turnout remains relatively high, and while those disillusioned with the system unknowingly continue to endorse it by voting.

To vote or not to vote, should that be the question?

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork

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