Voting Is Futile But That Doesn’t Mean Elections Are

The most interesting thing about Jeremy Paxman’s interview with Russell Brand isn’t what the comedian says.

No, it’s Paxman’s horrified reaction. Just watch it. Brand is a twit. But Paxman is glorious. He’s just so … shocked. Uncomfortable. Confused.

Paxman is supposed to be one of Britain’s leading political interviewers. He’s questioned top politicians and royalty.

Yet he is apparently flummoxed by this simple idea: voting and political engagement are not the same thing. The first does not equal the second. The second is not dependent on the first.

Fluffy movie-star Marxism aside, Russell Brand is right. Voting is one of the most futile ways to engage in politics.

Your vote – my vote, Brand’s vote, Paxman’s vote – doesn’t count. Not individually. Not to an election.

This is intuitively true, easy to demonstrate, but strangely controversial.

The New Zealand economist Eric Crampton offers a survey of the academic evidence about the notion that an individual vote can change an election here.

The best data is from the United States. A massive survey of 56,613 Congressional and state legislature elections could find only 10 elections where the result had come down to one vote – that is, where the result was a tie or the count revealed just one vote between the candidates.

Even that depressing result overstates the likelihood of a single vote deciding an outcome. Counting is not an exact science. Mistakes can be made (just ask the AEC). Five of those 10 elections were either recounted to reveal much larger margins, or just re-run.

The chance your vote will make a difference is infinitesimally small. So small, in fact, it’s not worth voting.

Not worth it, that is, if the reason you want to vote is to make a difference. There are other reasons one might vote apart from affecting an election outcome.

Many people follow politics like they follow sports teams. If they draw joy from voting, who are we to judge? Others vote because it is part of a ritual that underpins community and nation. That’s nothing to be scoffed at. Purely instrumental claims that voting is “irrational” simply because an individual cannot change the outcome miss the point. There’s nothing irrational about doing something you enjoy.

For some, voting is expressive. How they vote is part of who they are. A “Labor man” is a man who votes Labor. Humans build their identities out of their opinions and values – voting can help reinforce those identities.

And if voting is, legitimately and profoundly, a vehicle for personal expression, then so, surely, is the decision not to vote.

Brand explained his views in the New Statesman the next day: “I don’t vote because to me it seems like a tacit act of compliance.”

Many people claim that treating the decision to vote as a personal choice is somehow undemocratic, or a rejection of hard-won liberties.

These arguments should be seen for the nonsense that they are.

There’s a big difference between a right to vote and a positive duty – whether enforced by legal requirement or moral obligation – to do so.

The great battles for freedom and democracy of the past were not fought so that the state could coerce people into political participation. In Australia, we have turned democratic rights into legal requirements. (Yes, voting is compulsory.) Breaches of the law are punishable by the courts. This is a sickly ironic revision of the liberal cause so many died for.

Choosing not to exercise the right to vote is a very democratic choice.

There are far more effective ways to engage with the political system than voting. After all, politics is an ephemeral business.

Paul Samuelson, who wrote the textbook Economics that monopolised post-war university education in the United States, once said “let those who will write the nation’s laws if I can write its textbooks”.

It’s easy to overstate the differences between major parties, when, in fact, partisan differences don’t account very well for changes in public policy over time.

In the 1930s and 40s governments around the world, of left and right persuasion, increased control over their economies. In the 50s and 60s they built welfare states. In the 80s and 90s they privatised and deregulated.

Elections didn’t drive these epoch-defining changes. Voting certainly didn’t. Ideas did. The sort of ideas developed in textbooks and magazines.

But that’s where Russell Brand goes off the rails.

There’s a lot not to like about government of the twenty-first century – the institutionalised rent seeking, the expanding web of regulatory control, the lack of accountability, the national security excesses.

Yet it remains the case that elections are the most equitable, peaceful and legitimate mechanism to fix those problems.

Calling for “revolution”, as Brand does, is childish and naïve. At best such calls result in the kind of nihilistic destruction we saw in the London riots. At worst, well, I’m sure you know your history.

Democratic institutions ensure that if you want to alter policy, you have to convince your fellow citizens that change is desirable.

And, because any single vote will not change an election outcome, you have to convince a very large number that your cause is so important they should make an expressive, personal, “irrational” stand at the ballot box.

The futility of voting means that democracy resists sudden radical change. This is a good thing.

So many people who complain that the “system” is rigged are in truth complaining that most other citizens don’t agree with them.

But Russell Brand’s instincts on voting are correct. There is no civic duty to vote. His personal vote will not make a difference.

Abstaining is as powerful a democratic statement as any vote could be.