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Should everybody vote?

‘What is the European Union?’


This was the most Googled question in the UK following the the decision to leave the European Union. This does not instil many with hope.

Voting has, and always will be, considered a crucial part of the democratic system. It acts as the chance to grant the people a voice, a say in the direction in which their country is headed. But is it, necessarily, the greatest way to govern? With recent, controversial events such as Brexit, or the election of Donald Trump, many have started to turn against their neighbours, doubting them more and more every day. So, why is voting the best method of governance, and are their adjustments that we should make the democratic process?

In order to vote in Britain today, you must be of 18 years or older, a British, Irish or qualifying Commonwealth citizen, be a resident at a UK address, and not be legally excluded (convicted, detained etc.) It is a system that has been fought for over hundreds of years, from the days of 1832, where the vote was granted only to men over 21 owning properties of significant value, through the Suffragette movement, and a range of other uprisings, up until today, where we now look back with doubt. And democracy, it must be said, has a good track record, as Amartya Sen notes: 

‘Democracies never have famines, and other scholars believe that they almost never go to war with one another, rarely murder their own populations, nearly always have peaceful transitions of government, and respect human rights more consistently than other regimes do.’ 

This is a fair statement, and a convincing argument. However, it is not an argument on its own. Why should we settle for the status-quo? Yes, democracy has a good track record, but that doesn’t warrant stagnancy.

The argument that most, if not all, turn to when discussing the benefits of universal enfranchisement, is that of liberalism. The vote ties citizens together, giving all an incentive to operate and take part in society, moving towards what Rousseau dubbed ‘the general will’. Many would go so far as to say that it is a citizen’s ‘duty’ to vote. This is where I draw the line. The concept of a ‘duty’ to vote sounds great, but it only works if everyone is equally incentivised to truly and rigorously take part in the democratic process. This, unfortunately, would not happen in the real world. So many people cling to ideas for expediency, moulding their views to fit in with what exists already. In other words ‘jumping on the bandwagon’ of whatever view is fashionable. If we keep telling people to vote, they will simply do what their friends, family or those around them will do. It may lead to flippant, mindless voting, coupled with uniformed decision-making. It is here that it is necessary to introduce those arguments against universal enfranchisement.

One of the earliest and most notable accounts of the promotion of disenfranchisement was presented by Socrates in Plato’s Republic. He does so by means of analogy: imagine that you are a captain of a ship, and that you must choose a crew. You don’t know which crew to choose, and so you seek advice. Now, you have two options, you can either consult a group of trained sailors, each a having different, but significant levels of experience in their craft. Alternatively, you can seek the advice of a random selection of people on the street that you do not know? Who do you choose? Obviously the sailors in this analogy. So, can this analogy be expanded into questioning the democratic process. Do the people, essentially, know enough about our political and economic framework to be qualified to make a decision about it, or should it be left to the experts? Not everyone is politically informed, as the quote at the top of this article suggests, and this is not an insult, as CNN’s LZ Granderson wrote: ‘No one is omniscient, we’re all ignorant about something.’ 

In an age of social media dominance, and a media riddled with ‘fake news’, people’s falsity of information and subsequent misjudgement cannot be ignored, and has especially been brought to forefront of people’s attention with Cambridge Analytica’s information meddling, and Mark Zuckerberg’s recent trial.

So what are the solutions? Granderson presented the idea of a multiple-choice, fact based test to level the playing field. J.S Mill argued in favour of weighted voting, those who are educated should have a ‘heavier’ vote. Or perhaps we should have a jury system, with a few random citizens called in to duty to hear speeches, witness debates and then, within this group, argue out the case until a solution is presented?

All of these are tempting ideas, and all have their own value. Each is worthy of an essay in itself! Unfortunately, as seductive as they may be, one must interject a sense of realism. I am not for a moment ruling any of them out, as they could prove useful if the future of democracy slopes downward. Yet, currently, they seem a little rash. Yes, the Trump and Brexit votes were controversial, but they are but two events in the entire history of democracy.

Changes do, however, need to be made. Firstly, information clarity and reliability need to, obviously, be sharpened up. Of course, this is easy to write, but it is so fundamentally important that people are allowed to think without having to constantly question the data they receive. This is, also, subject to its own essay. Next, information campaigns should be broadcast, showing people the shocking statistics of political ignorance. The quote at the start of this essay would be a good place to start. And finally, we should fundamentally dispel this idealist proposition that it is everybody’s ‘duty’ to vote. People should instead be encouraged to recognise when it is their duty not to vote, as harsh as this may sound. This sort of shame may encourage people to politically and socially engage, and thus claim their psychological ‘right’ to vote.

But legally, the right to vote should not be stripped, not yet at least. The possibility of challenging democracy should not be closed off for the sake of expediency, however, it should not be revoked prematurely.  Overall, a limitation of the vote would likely cause greater social unrest than it solves. Citizens would feel disincentivized from acting in a society that they have no say in. Those citizens excluded will feel ruled, powerless and voiceless. Now, I know that the utilitarian may say that the net benefits of being ‘ruled’ in this way may outweigh the costs, however this is not confirmed. Who’s to say that those ruling won’t fail to control the people who would, by my prediction, probably go on strike, or take other such actions to ensure their political freedom.

Again, I would like to emphasise that the possibility of changing the voting system should not be ruled out, but it should only be changed in a justified environment, not as a knee-jerk reaction to two controversial political decisions. 

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