Not voting is an own goal

In 1990 I put an election billboard on my fence that featured a sinister looking silhouette in a business suit saying “vote for No-One, because No-One cares”. People’s responses ranged from amusement to furious anger, with one person even climbing the fence to vandalise it at night.

It was a bit of fun, but with a serious intent. I wanted to express my dissatisfaction at a system that trades a vote every three years for meaningful participation. I wanted to show my disgust at the co-option of governments by corporate lobby interests. I wanted to demonstrate my belief that the parliamentary system is unable to comprehend, much less find a solution to, the real issues facing our world.

All those statements still hold true for me today. Looking back, though, what strikes me is my dismay when New Zealand elected a National Government. I could see on election night that things were going to get much worse for ordinary New Zealanders. Indeed, that Government soon introduced a range of regressive policies that remain in place to this day, including the end of free tertiary education, vicious welfare cuts, attacks on workers’ rights and asset sales that even the previous Labour Government had balked at.

A year or two later I found myself at a huge march in Auckland to oppose the policies of a Government that I had encouraged people not to vote against. That contradiction, and others I experienced at a variety of street demonstrations and occupations during those years, led me to question much of my political ideology and dogma. As a result of this on-going self reflection my ideas about strategy and tactics have become more responsive, while my principles have become clearer.

My views on engagement in parliamentary politics changed with the introduction of MMP. In 1999 I was elected as an MP for the Green Party and just under nine years later I resigned from Parliament. In my final speech I spoke about many of those same themes that had concerned me in 1990. Perhaps more than most, I am well aware of the limitations of parliamentary politics.

There are two main reasons that progressive thinkers give for not voting. The first is that it makes no real difference. The second is that voting legitimises an illegitimate system.

It’s true that you can’t vote for revolution. That doesn’t mean that revolutionaries shouldn’t vote. It just means they should vote for more practical reasons. Voting is a tool, and like all tools there are some things it is good for and some things it is not.

The outcome of this election will make a lot of difference. Not in fundamental ways perhaps, but it will have direct impact on people’s wellbeing. Whether National or Labour leads the next Government – and just as importantly, how much influence the Greens have, or the Conservatives, ACT, the Maori Party, Internet Mana and NZ First – will determine how much the lowest paid workers will get to take home each week. It will determine whether our coastline is opened up for oil drilling and maybe whether we end up having a catastrophic oil spill. It might decide whether the Maui’s Dolphin becomes extinct. It will decide whether housing will be more, or less, affordable. It will make a clear statement about whether as a nation we are concerned about child poverty or whether we really just don’t care as long as we get a tax cut.

My aims in voting this year are modest. I don’t expect radical change from politicians because they couldn’t deliver it even if they wanted to, at least not without massive changes in public opinion first. I don’t expect the big problems to be solved or to see congregations of the wise inhabiting the Beehive. I vote to make some government policies a little better and to stop some others getting worse. I vote so that at least some of my most important issues are amplified. I vote so that there is someone in there to call out the bullshit when they see it. I vote because the National Party’s lies and deceit just went too far this time. I vote because trying to make the world a better place is easier when we have allies in Government. Given the minimal effort involved, it seems like an own goal not to.

Finally, if you are worried that ticking a voting form will somehow legitimise the system, don’t be. Your vote will have absolutely no impact on that. All it will do is make it more or less likely that John Key and the National Party is re-elected.

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7 thoughts on “Not voting is an own goal

  1. Paul Bailey says:

    Reblogged this on Hawkes Bay Greenie and commented:
    “I vote so that there is someone in there to call out the bullshit when they see it.” Nandor Tanczos. So true

    • lynley ruck says:

      “I vote so that there is someone in there to call out the bullshit when they see it.”

      a quote I shall post on my timeline – and the reason I vote Green – thankyou – I have had to have this conversation with the disillusioned.

  2. Debs Martin says:

    Ka pai tou whakaaro Nandor. Such helpful thoughts to those feeling disenfranchised by a system packed full of structural inequities. Much deeper societal change is needed in our political structures, but “not voting is not rebellion, its a vote for National”.

  3. Admin says:

    Kia ora Nandor, thanks for this.
    I think you make some valid points though I disagree with you on a couple of others.
    For the first time, I didn’t vote this election – it was mostly for personal reasons but it got me thinking about the more public/political reasons for choosing not to vote.
    Ignorance about the political system, the rights and responsibilities of citizens, etc. is one reason some people do not vote. They haven’t made an effort to find out, or have thought it was not something they are allowed to do because it’s just not a system or society they feel a part of in any meaningful way. (see: http://dianerevoluta.tumblr.com/post/98014346147/that-grey-bar)
    Others just ‘can’t be bothered’, they know they probably should but can’t get motivated enough to spend 15 minutes of their time going into a polling booth. That lack of motivation has a variety of contributing factors to it which may include being new to the place or just having other more pressing personal priorities, which may include emotional or physical needs.
    Others choose not to vote because they honestly don’t know which person or party they would want to give their vote to – they feel ill informed and unwilling to commit one way or another because they haven’t got enough information.
    Another group don’t want to vote because they don’t have confidence in any party or politician – as a society politicians are way down the bottom of professions we trust. They have heard all the promises, probably participated in elections previously and maybe been a member of a political party but have been so disappointed by the inability of any party to live up to the expectations they held that they currently can no longer bring themselves to support any party or candidate.
    I’m not sure if it’s a different group, a subset of the last one or just the same people with a different expression for their lack of confidence, but there are people who have given up on the whole process, the ones you suggest don’t want to legitimise a rotten system and think that voting ‘just encourages the politicians’. You suggest that this decision to not vote ‘will have absolutely no impact at all’ – but I’m not so sure.
    For a starter, when nearly a million eligible voters don’t exercise the right, it provokes these kinds of discussions and encourages more deliberation on the validity of the system, the legitimacy and effectiveness of representative democracy, the possibility of more effective and potentially disastrous alternatives, the level of social capital and social infrastructure in our society that means such a large proportion of the population are disenfranchised (or not) and allowing others to determine (or not) the future for the most vulnerable in our communities, etc.
    Choosing not to vote, is still a vote. It may have made John Key more likely to win, but then a Labour-led alternative is not any more attractive to many of us. Concessions on RMA and welfare reform, indigenous rights, mechanisms to address inequality, state asset sales and ties to the US economy and global military industrial complex would continue to frustrate many of us who like to think we vote with a little less self-interest than the majority of our fellow citizens. Choosing not to vote is a message to say, the system is broken (no where near as much as some others) and we want to put energy into improving or replacing it.
    I think there is a place for a Vote of No Confidence option on the ballot, a space for those who don’t think we should settle for the current form of government modelled on (and still linked to) the Westminster system imposed by European settlers on these islands.
    There are plenty of improvements we can make to the system (I listed some here: http://pacificdemocracy.wordpress.com/2014/09/19/cleaning-up-dirty-politics/), and we can help create those changes with or without central government support. There are examples of this happening all the time using existing institutions and creating new processes and contexts for reducing the influence of the dominant paradigm on our families and communities.
    Likewise we can build authentic alternatives for self-governance, most likely without public support and eventually these will create conflict with the dominant system if they refuse to contribute to its maintenance and self-legitimising mechanisms for survival. This is a much more costly option and is unlikely to succeed, but if it’s all too hard then we continue to meddle and tinker with a massive infrastructure that is controlled by very powerful forces that refuse to give up power while we’re running out of time to make the changes the world needs to have any chance of a decent future.
    I like your point that voting doesn’t actually take much effort and provided it’s value and potential is seen for little effort and little impact it has, it’s not really so demanding that we should abstain for any good reason. I’ll probably vote again in the future, but by not doing so this time, I’m choosing not to abdicate anything to the government and voting for myself to take more responsibility for creating the community, country and planet I want my kids to be able to contribute to.

    • Nandor says:

      Kia ora Manu

      Well I don’t really disagree with anything you’ve written, except your point that not voting provokes discussion about the validity of the system. I’m not sure it does.

      I agree a ‘no-confidence’ box would be good and that we need to build new institutions. I think that the kind of change you envisage will happen when it becomes obvious that it works better for people than what we have now. My interest has always been in how we construct and communicate a compelling vision for change.

      Nga mihi ki a koe mo tou mahi whakahirahira

      Bless

      • Manu says:

        Thanks brother.
        I really like the sentiments you express in the Aftermath post too – demonising National supporters is just silly and the self-righteous indignation expressed by those who voted for a party that won’t make it to the Cabinet table is bordering on the bizarre.
        And in your travels around the mōtu have you come across m/any communities living the vision that provides an authentic alternative? There’s been quite a bit of discussion in the last 48 hours about the non-voters, but yeah, perhaps most of that has been blaming them/us for the outcome instead of it providing a catalyst for this kind of discussion.
        Heoi ano.

  4. Marama Davidson says:

    So thankful for this Nandor you have captured the nuance for me exactly.

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