Voting is both a privilege and a duty. If you’re an apathetic type, consider the following 10 less commonly heard (and only slightly sanctimonious) reasons why you should take some time off work to mark an “X” on a ballot today.
1. You’re one of the lucky few in the world who is able to do so.
Accurate numbers on this score are not easy to come by, but this report from the Hoover Institution ranks about 60% of the world’s nations as democratic in the broadest sense, namely that they hold elections. The more stringent classification of a full “liberal democracy” includes electoral competition for power but also:
- Freedom of belief, expression, organization, and demonstration
- Protection from political terror and unjustified imprisonment
- A rule of law under which all citizens are treated equally and due process is secure
- Political independence and neutrality of the judiciary and of other institutions of “horizontal accountability” that check the abuse of power
- An open, pluralistic civil society
- Civilian control over the military
By this measure, the number of global democracies drops to only 37% of nations worldwide. Wikipedia tells us that this is less than 15% of the global population. When you think that (due to age) only about 60-70% of the population in a full democracy can actually vote, that number drops to under 10% of people living in the world today.
2. Voting makes you disproportionately powerful over your fellow citizens.
A lot of people don’t vote because they believe their one vote won’t count for much. This is not true. As Marcus Gee writes in the Globe & Mail about today’s municipal election:
The mayor of Toronto matters. Thanks to amalgamation, the mayor leads a megacity of 2.6 million people. On paper, mayors are only first among equals, with one vote out of 45. But the fact that they are directly elected by the whole city gives them a big stick. No other single politician in Canada will have as many people put an X beside his name – not just his party’s name but his own name – than the winner in this election.
If that’s not enough to convince you, consider that in the 2006 Toronto municipal election, David Miller won with 332,969 votes out of a possible 584,484. His next closest rival, Jane Pitfield, got 188,932. In a city of several million, that’s not a huge difference. In Minnesota’s 2008 Senate election, Al Franken beat his opponent by 312 votes – about 0.01% of the votes cast. The state’s political future hung in the balance for 238 days as recount after recount and bitter feuding took place to determine the eventual winner. And don’t even get me started on the fact that 537 votes in Florida (0.009% of that state, let alone the whole country) determined who won the presidency in 2000. It’s an inconvenient truth, that is. (Groan.)
3. You’ve already paid for it. Sort of.
In established democracies, the fixed cost of elections isn’t actually that high per citizen (between $1 and $5, according to the Electoral Knowledge Network), but once you factor in the time spent campaigning, handing out flyers, debating, and volunteering generally, it adds up to a lot of hours devoted to getting you out there to vote. It would be a shame to waste all that effort, wouldn’t it? Of course, there is also the cost of campaigning: a recent article in the Guardian has estimated that around $5bn USD was/will be spent on this year’s midterm elections. We could probably eradicate malaria for that kind of money. Not to mention all the trees that had to die so candidates could print and distribute millions of flyers. At least make it somewhat well spent by voting.
4. If you’re a woman, less than 100 years ago you couldn’t.
Democracy is really a blip on the radar of human history. Particularly for females, the right to vote cannot be taken for granted. In Saudi Arabia, women still can’t vote. In Canada, women were only given the right to vote in 1919; in Quebec only in 1940. In Switzerland, females weren’t able to vote until 1971, and not until 1990 for cantonal (regional) elections! Yikes.
In the process of fighting for the right to vote, mony women were arrested, starved themselves and had to endure force-feeding in prison. Some have even died for the right to vote. It’s worth honouring their legacy by making your own voice heard.
5. If you’re a man, less than 200 years ago you couldn’t (probably).
Fortunately, we don’t all need property or wealth to vote anymore. In Britain, the Reform Act 1832 extended suffrage to approximately 1 in every 7 adult males, based on renting land. By 1882, about 60% of men could vote, but it wasn’t until 1969 that all male citizens 18 and over could vote in Britain. In Canada, all males over 18 were given the right to vote in 1970. 1920 is generally seen as the year that most barriers to voting were removed. In the US, full suffrage was extended to men over 18 only in 1971 (though most white adult men were able to vote by 1840).
6. Millions of men and women fought (and often died) in awful wars so we could have the freedom to vote.
Whatever your opinion on the current global wars, or whether or not historical ones were necessary, it’s hard to say you can’t be bothered to spend five minutes voting when so many others gave up their lives in order for us to have that right. And while you’re at it, donate to your local Veterans’ Association.
7. Without democracy, some of history’s greatest leaders would never have been in power.
Abraham Lincoln, considered by many to be the greatest President of the United States, was born in a one-room log cabin. I don’t think I need to justify why his being in power was a good thing. David Lloyd George, one of Britain’s greatest Prime Ministers, grew up the son of a teacher in Wales (and is still the only Welshman ever to have been PM). He laid the foundations for the modern welfare state. Angela Merkel, current chancellor of Germany and the first female to hold that position, is a woman. Forbes magazine has ranked her the most powerful woman in the world from 2006-2010. I won’t even link to Obama. These leaders were all notably outside of the establishment, and would never have come to power without the support of the masses (and the ability to stand for office in the first place).
8. We are genetically hardwired to vote.
Well, some of us anyway. Recent studies have indicated that, after accounting for various environmental factors (such as belief in efficacy of an individual vote, and affiliation with a religious organization), there was a significant heritability in voting behaviour. So if you don’t vote, you’re possibly contradicting your natural tendencies. And that just can’t feel good. And if you think you’re one of those people who isn’t hardwired to demonstrate prosocial behaviours like voting, you should vote anyway, and then go grab some serotonin, because you’re probably antisocial in other ways too.
9. Higher voter turnout is strongly correlated with high levels of social capital, which is always good.
And as I wrote recently, social capital is good for all kinds of reasons, from generating a warm and fuzzy sense of social belonging to helping individuals get jobs and special interest groups gets more recognition and funding. This is especially true within voting blocks – increased political engagement among different interest groups leads to more attention from politicians, and more money. This is why elected officials spend so much money on senior citizens but keep raising the cost of tuition, a change that primarily affects young people.
10. Some of the best and brightest thinkers in history think you should.
Obviously, since you are reading this blog, you are highly intelligent, informed and well-educated, exactly the kind of people who should be voting. And the world’s leading lights, from Aristotle to Benjamin Franklin to John Stuart Mill, would agree. I’ll end with a fantastic quotation that I found that sums up the whole idea well:
Democracy is the only system that persists in asking the powers that be whether they are the powers that ought to be. (Sydney J. Harris)
So stop reading and start voting! Early and often, as they say!