“Everything that can be said about the suffrage may be summed up in a sentence.
To vote is to give up your own power.”
It seems that many Canadians have their knickers in a twist over the proposed Fair Elections Act, the new federal bill which would overhaul the Elections Act, and prohibit Elections Canada from both encouraging the public to vote and publicizing research. The fear is that these reforms will further decrease our already steadily declining voter turnout rates, and weaken our democratic system.
Frankly, in terms of electoral policy, the Fair Elections Act is the least of Canadians’ worries. Our first-past-the-post electoral system elected a majority Conservative government in 2011 with only 39.62 per cent of votes cast (and less than 25 per cent of eligible Canadian voters), while the Greens won approximately four per cent of the vote and received but a single seat in parliament. The NDP vote was only nine per cent less than the Conservatives’ but resulted in a difference of 65 fewer seats – out of a total of 308 seats, that’s 21 per cent. Our democracy isn’t going to be jeopardized by the Fair Elections Act because you can’t break what’s already broken.
But of course Canadians are still upset about the proposed bill. Despite the flaws in our electoral system, we have been told that, as good citizens, it is our civic duty to vote. We have been inundated by our neighbours to the south with the message to “Vote or Die!” from such sharp political minds as P. Diddy and Paris Hilton. We have been told that if we refuse to participate in our representative democratic system, we are spoiled and ungrateful for all the freedoms we as Canadians enjoy. We have been utterly distracted by this heightened, patriotic rhetoric from all the injustices and inequality that Canadian women, people of colour, indigenous peoples, immigrants, children, seniors, and the working class face every day in our country. There’s nothing wrong with the system, we are told. The people who stay at home and don’t vote are the problem.
But not voting doesn’t have to mean staying at home! There are a hundred ways to be politically active without participating in formal electoral politics, through grassroots organizing and direct action.
Just to name a few: economic sabotage; occupying buildings; blockades; strike action and strike solidarity; organizing boycotts; street protests; staging demonstrations and political publicity stunts; prisoner support work; radical unionism; conscious consumption; donating money or other resources; creating propaganda through writing, art, music, radio, and theatre; organizing and participating in educational events such as panel discussions, debates, book launches, and speakers; alternative education; community organizing such as creating intentional communities, collectives, and cooperatives; volunteering with non-profit organizations; joining student groups; working toward food security through organizations like Food Not Bombs or growing your own food; and building alternative infrastructure.
The point is that voting once every four years and sitting on your couch watching television the rest of the time is not the same thing as being politically active. Choosing not to vote, on the other hand, is not the same thing as being apathetic; on the contrary, boycotting elections can be a powerful form of activism in and of itself. Chief Electoral Officer Marc Mayrand was recently quoted as saying, “If [voter] turnout continues to decline at the pace it has been declining over the last 40 years… we’ll have questions about the legitimacy of our government and how representative they are.”
Excellent. Those are the questions we should be raising and seriously thinking about. But we currently aren’t, because the vote is a great way to keep people complacent so that for the other 364 days of the year they feel as though they’ve done their part, and can wash their hands of any responsibility to get political and take change into their own hands. Leaving all the tough decisions up to our politicians sure is a lot easier than actually getting informed and involved. Thinking of politics as something that can only be done formally by the elite, privileged few with our consent and support is a lot easier than taking steps to make conscious political and ethical decisions in our daily lives.
It doesn’t always have to be one or the other; of course many voters are also active, engaged community members year-round. But when voters complain that politicians and parties are all the same; that our leaders are corrupt; that party discipline makes individual MPs powerless; that the electoral system is flawed; that our political system is inaccessible; or that the state, through its economic policies and judiciary branch, targets the poor and marginalized, they have no one but themselves to blame. They supported the system.
The problem isn’t individual politicians; the problem is a political system based on hierarchy and majority rule – one that is hopelessly disconnected from the average person struggling to make ends meet, and that constantly serves the interests of the most powerful in society. Yet many believe that despite the system’s many problems, it’s still the best we’ve ever had and therefore the best we’re ever likely to get. Talk about pessimism and setting the bar low.
Voting is compliance; a vote is your consent to be governed and your formal show of support for the current system. It’s giving up your power. It’s a cop-out.
Following his viral Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman, comedian and vocal voting abstainer Russell Brand wrote something rather spot-on in the Guardian of his pro-voting detractors: “They say the system works. What they mean is ‘the system works for me.’”
So if the status quo is working for you, by all means, vote. If you can look past the massive structural inequality in our society and still think to yourself, “Yep, everything is pretty good,” go for it. If you’ve given up hope that things are ever going to really change for the better and believe that your only power lies in choosing the lesser of two evils, voting sounds like the thing for you.
But don’t be naïve enough to think that your individual vote actually counts in a first-past-the-post system; it doesn’t. Don’t be naïve enough to think that power changing hands from one elitist political leader to another is the same thing as changing the structures that create inequality and injustice in our society; it isn’t. Above all, don’t be naïve enough to believe that the idea of civic duty that’s been drilled into your brain is anything other than a mechanism of control. Your only duty is to be a good global citizen, and to act with care and consideration for all life. The government is supposed to serve you, not the other way around.
I still have hope that things can be better. So, sorry, P. Diddy – I think I’m going to sit this one out.