Before the last general election I wrote a piece about why you should vote and concluded:
So why vote? The answer is simple and it’s the answer your granny used to give. You vote because it’s the right thing to do and because, however insignificant it might be, voting is often the only chance you’ve got of getting something changed. People really did chuck themselves under horses, people really did get killed, people really did strike, march and protest so as to get that right to pick up a stubby pencil and mark a cross in a box once in a while. Don’t get me wrong, if you choose not to bother it doesn’t make you a bad person – you’re not really letting down your suffragette great grandma or the great uncle killed on D-day.
So go and vote it’s your chance to do something. And do it loudly, proudly and knowing that it’s the most significantly insignificant act you can undertake.
I realise that this is probably insufficient as a proper philosophical analysis of voting. But I find the libertarian argument for not voting to be founded on a profound misunderstanding of voting's purpose. Here's Sam Bowman from the Adam Smith Institute (quoted by Chris Snowdon from the Institute of Economic Affairs):
‘If your aim is to affect policy, voting is irrational. If you want to act ethically, voting is irrelevant. Mathematically, the chances of a single vote actually determining the outcome of an election in a meaningful way (that will affect policy outcomes) is infinitesimally small.’
And I guess that, if the purpose of voting was to influence policy, Sam might have a point. But, as we all should know, voting's purpose is the election of a person not a policy. In a representative democracy we use voting to choose someone to go off to parliament because all sixty odd million of us can't fit into the building. Technology will probably make this obsolete (for a description of the problems this might entail go and read Norman Spinrad's 'The World Between') but right now that's not an option. Now if Sam's not bothered who represents him then there's no point in voting - he can make the rational decision not to fuss himself with the minor inconvenience of toddling along to the polling station. But if Sam is bothered then casting his insignificant vote is the only way in which he can influence that choice.
To return to influencing policy, there is a modicum of smugness about the director of an influential think tank talking about how voting doesn't affect policy. After all that director has the means and the capacity to influence policy by virtue of being in charge of a think tank. And the same would go for the chief executive of some large organisation able to invest its PR pounds in lobbying. But spare a thought for Mr Crowther in Cullingworth who doesn't have a think tank and doesn't have the funds to lobby government officials about policy. Voting is one of the very few ways in which that man can have a say on things that matter to him.
Finally there's Eamonn Butler's argument (also cited by Chris Snowdon) that writing a message to the candidates on a ballot paper is better than actually using said ballot for its intended purpose. This is an observation made my someone who has clearly never been anywhere near the counting of votes at an election. As a candidate my access to that ballot would be for a fleeting second while we review spoilt ballots - the returning officer will point out that the writing means the person could be identified and therefore the ballot is invalid before moving on to the ballor with a neat drawing of a penis carefully inscribed in the Tory candidate's box (which is incidently a valid vote for that candidate). Eamonn's message will not be read - he would have wasted his time.
Voting is an insignificant act but not one without purpose or point and collectively those insignificant acts can be significant (Sam and his friends not turning up may result in a government that bans right wing think tanks). There may be a case for alternatives - lotteries, policy panels, military dictatorship and so forth - but, in practical terms, we have to engage with the system we have in place. Because that's an election the result will be determined by those who turn up and vote not by those who don't.
So go and vote folks!
For those interested in creative approaches to marking the ballot here is the current Electoral Commission Guidance on doubtful ballots (pdf|)