IT IS NOT ALWAYS APATHY
There is a joke that has been doing the rounds lately. In it, a thief is caught in the act and the gathering crowd prepares to lynch him. At some point, he has a stroke of genius and yells “I’ve registered as a voter.” The crowd lets him go, and postpones his beating to September, after the election.
I’ve only voted once in my life. In 2010, I queued from 5am to about 9am to vote in the constitutional referendum. I’d read through the document numerous times, figuring out we’d be stuck with a massive tab for new offices, but we would finally be achieving a dream we’ve had since independence.
But this is about why I don’t vote in electoral politics.
If you thought religious fights were the most divisive online, just say you don’t vote and summon a lynching. Someone even told me, on Twitter, that people like me deserve to be in the wild with the wildebeests.
To say I don’t vote is not to say I am apolitical or apathetic. As a writer/historian/journalist, I am a chronicler of the political process, as well as a rather captivated student of it. I don’t vote because I belong to a small, quiet group of non-voters who are best described as abstainers. This isn’t a manifesto on non-voting, but rather an explanation of why I don’t and why the arguments to, fall short.
Voting is not a duty, it is a right. It comes with the right to vote, to spoil your vote or to not vote. The right to abstain is the least acknowledged of these because politicians want numbers. In fact, in the last one week, one legislator has proposed taking away this right and replacing it with compulsory voting. Ironically, if there was one thing that would take me back to the ballot, it would be to vote against any attempts to make voting compulsory.
Mathematically, an abstention does one of two things: suppresses the majority vote or does nothing. In most places, such as parliament, abstention from voting is an interesting statement. While it’s an expression of ambivalence or indifference, or both, non-voters still attend to achieve quorum. Individuals can abstain too from voting, and it is not always indifference or apathy. It is sometimes a thorough understanding of the structure of the political process.
THE FALSE CHOICE
I don’t vote because the process has been fetishized. It is a false choice, designed around exclusive narratives that present either-or scenarios where there are in fact more choices.
It’s not just the paradox of voting, where the benefits for the individual are far less than the costs of voting. It is also that we are stuck in what, in game theory, is called the prisoners’ dilemma. The basic setup is two criminals who’ve been arrested and are presented with several choices. One is to snitch on each other and get 2 years in prison each. The other is that if one snitches on the other and the other doesn’t, then he will be set free and the other jailed for three years. The third is that if none snitches, they will both get 1 year in prison.
The most rational solution here would be to “Work together” to maximize the benefit and minimize the sentence, hence, not snitching at all. But that is unlikely to happen. They will most likely snitch on each other, hoping the other one doesn’t.
It’s the same at the ballot. We collectively make bad decisions that harm us more than benefit us, while the most rational choice is right on the same ballot paper. For younger voters in Kenya in 2013, for example, one candidate’s manifesto resonated with them more than others. At the ballot though, that candidate couldn’t rake in even 100k votes. The argument wasn’t that he wasn’t fit, it was that he was running for the wrong seat. The end result was the election of two people accused of crimes against humanity, and who went ahead to use state machinery to hamper the justice system they had been subjected to. In voting for them, voters became complicit in whatever actions they took to “save themselves” from the justice system.
One of the reasons why I voted in 2010 was that it went out of its way to force voters into participating in the entirety of the political process. It includes the right of recall, for example, the right of voters to change their minds about their previous decisions on leaders. We haven’t used this tool yet despite having numerous reasons to do so. Before this, the only thing that held voters accountable was the lack of actual change in their lives. If they elected bad leaders, they could simply shirk this responsibility on those who didn’t vote, ignoring the fact that abstentions don’t count in vote tallies.
The fetishization of the ballot has become the icon of our transactional politics. Politicians know they are safe before elections and therefore do little or nothing. They even avoid their constituents until it is a few months to the election period. Voters long learnt this so they learnt to hold their votes as ransom, demanding everything from water, food, security and roads in that short window before elections. Communication is one way for five years, then politicians descend into hamlets to beg for votes, and voters in turn boo, heckle, and block roads. It is the only way. The man who represented the constituency I grew up in was known to give away parcels of his land before elections to farmers. They had a short window of a single season to plant and run because once the ballots closed, he would demand it back.
The entire thinking behind democracy is that any leader who should choose to stand for an election has the best interests of the country and constituents at heart. The idea is that we assess them by how the promise us they will go about it. But this isn’t how we select our leaders. We don’t select the most capable among us, or the most promising. We instead treat it like the Hunger Games, selecting whoever survives the murky madness of politics, whether they are good leaders or not.
We believe in the act of voting, and politicians love to make it sound as if the fate of the nation is decided on Election Day, and not in the intervening five years. It freezes the citizen’s participating in the political process into a single moment on a single day, and blinds us to everything else. Even after the debacles of 2007 and 2013 elections, for example, we are making the same mistakes in the body that will be in charge of counting the votes.
I don’t vote because I don’t believe that it is the most important activity that a patriotic citizen should engage in. In fact I don’t think it would be in my top 3 if I was to list them. I do not agree with the false choices we give ourselves, or the importance we place on one small part of a much larger process, ignoring the rest. I also don’t think that voting simply for its sentimental value is any good; it is in fact detrimental to the process it tries to validate.
KENYA AND ANCIENT GREECE
What this situation has done is to lie to voters that their primary duty as citizens is to vote. Voting is not a duty, neither is it a moral one. In fact we don’t vote because we believe in the manifestos or are seeking real change; if you assess recent headlines, you’ll notice existential threat is a top reason why we go to the ballot.
The idea of voting as a duty is Athenian. Athenians believed it was every (free, landowning, male) citizen’s duty to participate in the entire process of decision making, not just voting. In this direct democracy, they achieved quorum by herding people to the assembly, and punishing anyone who had to be forced to be there.
Most of the counter-arguments you’ll hear to non-voting come from this context, and from ancient Greek philosophers. Plato’s oft misquoted saying that the risk of not participating in the political process is to be ruled by inferior men referred to the entire process, not just voting.
Another favorite one is that bad leaders are elected by people who don’t vote, often said by bad leaders themselves. That’s a lie; it assumes that if people like me voted, we would not have followed the herd. Bad leaders are elected by people who elect bad leaders. It’s that simple.
The third, and my absolute favorite, is that people who don’t vote shouldn’t complain. It pegs the freedom of expression on a single act in the political process. Voting is an act of consent, so perhaps it should be the other way round, that those who vote shouldn’t complain. Another one that contradicts this one that “nothing will change unless you vote.”
The irrationality of both is that they assume that the work of a voting citizen (who are in fact a minority) begins and ends with a small tick in a box on a paper. It ignores the true duties of a citizen, to love your country and pay your taxes. Your rights and freedoms are yours by virtue of birth, and should not be hinged on exclusionary parts of the political process.