A post over on Shifting Baselines got me thinking about voting. People often equate voting with being politically engaged and argue that falling voter turnouts demonstrate the failure of democracy. While that is a potentially valid interpretation, another possibility comes to mind. Namely, that the complexity of contemporary policy issues makes voting for a political party too blunt an instrument by which to express yourself meaningfully.
When voting in the Canadian system, the first question is whether or not to vote for a hopeless party. That is to say, anybody except the Liberals, Conservatives, NDP, and perhaps the Bloc depending on where you are. Voting for a different party – or for one of these in a riding where that party has no chance of winning – does demonstrate a kind of clear political preference. Even so, the message is ambiguous. For example, it is unknowable to anybody else whether you voted Green because you like their policies the most, because you liked their local candidate most, or because you wanted to protest the behaviours or policies of alternative parties. The Green Party, other parties, the media, and others could interpret your action in any of those ways. As such, your vote hasn’t sent a clear message to anybody.
Voting for a party with a chance of winning is even more problematic, when it comes to determining what your vote implies. Voting Liberal in a riding that pitches a plausible Liberal candidate against a plausible Tory candidate suggests that, overall, you prefer either that particular candidate or the Liberal Party in general. You may actually support more Conservative Party policies than Liberal ones but have certain points of irreconcilable disagreement with the Tory platform. You might prefer NDP policy on every front, but have chosen to reduce the chances of a Conservative victory, rather than expressing that preference in a more obvious way.
In short, it is impossible for anybody other than a particular voter to derive much information from a vote. Voting isn’t useless in this situation: it allows the electorate to turf out particularly corrupt, scandal-laden, or incompetent legislators or parties. What it does not do is allow voters to meaningfully signal their policy preferences through the act of voting alone. In situations where no plausible candidate is overtly unacceptable and all available choices are flawed, choosing not to vote may not be a betrayal of democratic ideals. Indeed, the idea that 100% voter turnout would be the epitome of a politically engaged populace really misses the extent to which a choice that is so constrained is so devoid of politically actionable content.
Being politically engaged thus means being much more overt about supporting or opposing particular policies during the time between elections: writing letters or articles, attending protests, calling your Member of Parliament, etc, etc. By itself, voting gives you very little meaningful voice in a Parliamentary democracy. Contributing to the political life of your state simply requires a lot more effort.