Should you vote? South African Local Government Elections 2016

Earlier today, Eusebius McKaiser was asking CapeTalk and Radio702 listeners whether they thought that they had a duty to vote, and I tweeted that

John Maytham was listening in, and that resulted in an interview with me, just concluded a few minutes ago. For those who didn’t hear it (here’s a link to the podcast), and who care about what I have to say on this topic, here is a digest of my thoughts on the matter:

  • Just as in our scientific enquiries, when you increase the sample size, you increase the legitimacy of the result. If you have 60% support for one party, with a 40% voter turnout, that expresses less confidence than 60% support from an 80% turnout would.
  • To put it another way, a low turnout decreases confidence in both the result, and in whether the indicated majority preference is actually a majority preference, for all who could potentially have voted.
  • While I do think that this means people should vote, I’m not sure whether it should be compulsory to vote, as in Australia and elsewhere. That strikes me as an unsupportable invasion of liberty – I’d rather encourage voting, rather than enforcing it, by persuading people that it matters to vote.

I’m not convinced by either of two arguments:

  • First, that staying away benefits the incumbent. That assumes too much about how people are going to vote (in particular, whether they will conform to historical patterns in this election).
  • Second, I’m not persuaded that those who don’t vote are not entitled to complain. It’s the fact that you support the fiscus through taxation that entitles you to the reciprocal obligation to be rendered services to a certain standard (Washington D.C. is an interesting anomaly, of course, as T pointed out earlier today). Also, it’s the government’s obligation to render services to you, whether or not you voted for them.

And finally, on choosing not to vote, ostensibly “in protest”. As Darrel Bristow-Bovey just tweeted:

Yes, freedom does give you the right to not express a view. But there’s a vast difference between signalling disapproval of all the candidates, or of the system, and simply not giving a damn. We, and the elected representatives, can’t know which camp you fall into unless you vote.

So, signal your protest by spoiling your ballot, if you must. If sufficient numbers do this – especially in “safe” wards like mine – it could serve as a signal that, while you are the winner, we’re not entirely happy. A significant increase in spoilt ballots can send a signal, so long as there’s a large enough increase in spoilt ballots to not be attributable simply to voter error.

It would be ideal if, instead of having the option of spoiling ballots, we had a “none of the above option”. But until we have that option, if we ever do, I’d encourage you to take the 15 minutes out of your day to either indicate a preference, or to indicate that all available preferences are unattractive (despite the messiness of this signal).

And lastly – I’d encourage you to vote tactically, rather than according to blind allegiance. In my ward, for example, one party is going to get 80% or more of the vote. We create echo chambers of agreement if we don’t allow dissenting voices in city councils.

With your proportional representation vote, in particular, bear in mind that small number of votes can influence seats, and introduce a dissenting voice, which can hold the majority to account.

The ANC and the DA (in particular) are telling you that you shouldn’t split your vote by opting for one of the smaller parties. But that’s mostly an attempt to avoid the messiness of having to form a coalition government. That’s understandable, from their point of view.

But your interests are not (always) theirs. If you want accountability, and dissent, and debate, then you might want to force your preferred party to engage with the ideas of others, and that might sometimes mean voting against them, for their own good, or at least for the ultimate good of the values you espouse, and they say that they espouse too.

Update: here’s a useful summary of how the two (for most) ballots work, from Murray Hunter on Facebook.

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Also published on Medium.