Commentary

Thank You For Not Voting

By Will Wilkinson
This article appeared in the Ottawa Citizen on October 22, 2008.

Last week’s federal election was decided with the lowest levels of voter turnout in Canadian history — about 59 per cent. But public-spirited citizens should not therefore wring their hands about the sorry state of Canadian democracy. Contrary to the folklore of democratic health, low turnout can signal social solidarity, reflect real civic virtue, and even make democracy work better.

We humans are adversarial beings, easily riled by us-versus-them conflict. (Even Canadians!) Democratic politics is a wonderful way to peacefully channel social antagonism into ritual symbolic warfare. High voter turnout is as likely to reflect angry social division as it is to augur the reign of Kumbaya social cohesion.

Indeed, lower levels of turnout may suggest that voters actually trust each other more — that fewer feel an urgent need to vote defensively, to guard against competing interests or ideologies. Is it really all that bad if a broad swath of voters, relatively happy with the status quo, sit it out from a decided lack of pique?

Moreover, if you want to be civic-minded, your duty isn’t to fill in ballots just to fill in ballots. You shouldn’t do it in ignorance, out of emotion, or to win approval from your political friends. Your duty is to vote well — to participate in a way that, at the very least, makes the outcome no worse.

Everybody has an incontestable and absolute right to his or her vote, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right to vote. Abstaining can be a way of looking after the public good, too. Not all of us have the energy, inclination, or opportunity to learn what we need to know in order to vote well. And that’s OK. There’s more to public-spiritedness than showing up at the polls. You can run a small business or coach a kids’ hockey team with the common good in mind. That’s an expression of civic virtue, too.

The virtue of opting out is especially clear once you grasp that more voting isn’t necessarily better voting. Specialists in public opinion have exhaustively documented the average voter’s shocking ignorance about the main issues of the day, the names of their local candidates for office, or the policies the candidates support.

The flakiest voters — the ones least motivated to show up at the polls year in and year out — also tend to be most poorly informed. So when turnout drops, it tends to leave the pool of remaining voters with an improved average level of political knowledge and policy know-how. If well-informed voters have a better picture of the candidate or party most likely to promote the general welfare, then especially high turnout can actually tilt an election away from the better choice, leaving everyone a bit worse off. And that’s not very civic-minded.

Lower voter turnout sets the stage for better democracy.”

At this point in the argument, some readers will have become pretty upset. The “best informed” voters tend to be the best-educated, and therefore tend to be relatively wealthy. Doesn’t this line of thinking suggest that relatively disadvantaged citizens would do us all a favour — would do themselves a favour — by staying home on election day? But then who will stand up for them? Who will promote their interests?

It’s an excellent question, but it’s based on one disproven and one unlikely assumption. The disproven assumption is that economic self-interest predicts voter behaviour. The consensus finding of political scientists is that voters — lettered and unlettered, rich and poor — tend to vote in good faith to promote what they see as the public good. That’s good news. The unlikely assumption is that the voters who know least about politics and public policy have the means to make good decisions about which candidates and policies will best promote their interests. That doesn’t compute.

But everyone should have the means to make informed and effective democratic decisions. And that’s really the issue, isn’t it? It would be ideal were each and every citizen to have the income and education typical of well-informed, motivated voters. But to get there, we need policies that will actually work to promote broader prosperity and a fuller realization of basic human capacities. A better-informed pool of voters is more likely to deliver those policies.

And so we are left with the Zen riddle of democracy: the closer a non-ideal democracy comes to maximum democratic participation, the less likely it is to adopt the means to ideal democratic participation. Lower voter turnout sets the stage for better democracy.

So, on behalf of our cherished ideals of democratic equality, let me be the first to say: well done, Canadian abstainers.

Will Wilkinson is a research fellow at the Cato Institute