JS Jones looks at the prolonged disenfranchisement of voters, and asks how citizens can register their discontent with the entire electoral system.
If this week’s parliamentary election is like others, only around half of eligible Scots will turn out to vote. That’s roughly comparable with many jurisdictions without some form of compulsory voting, but with every election cycle we hear the same participatory cliches wheeled out: that people died for our right to vote, that you could at least spoil your ballot if you don’t like any of the options, that every vote counts.
More on these later, but it’s telling that public discussion of voter abstention usually meets the same fate as that of public trust in government: brows are furrowed at the prospect of votes dropping off, but asking if institutions are trustworthy is deemed impolite. Better to ascribe uncomfortable political views to individual lunacy.
Why people don’t vote isn’t the concern of this article, we cannot know the reasons accurately because there is no official account of them. There does not need to be, because participation in the process is inherently viewed as an affirmation of it. It’s telling that discussions of non-voters’ intent frequently begin with the assumption that our democracy is the best it can be for now, a thread back in time and to the future, the humblest expression of the relationship between the individual and ‘the process’. The presumption follows that because the process is so intrinsically proper, anyone not taking part in it must be spiteful, ignorant or lazy, rather than examining what it might say about the process itself.
In reality Scottish democracy is riddled with flaws. The Scottish Parliament unites people only in dissatisfaction, being seen variously as an unnecessary delay on the road to independence or a ghastly mistake which brings separation closer every day. Party manifestos are so watered down as to be almost indistinguishable from each other. The only substantive issue for the parties is independence, which may not even be in the powers of this parliament.
This election is cast by the incumbent ruling party as a vote on its own hazy path towards a new referendum, at the price of only total domination of domestic politics for another half decade, seven years after the 2014 referendum and fourteen since it first took power. In their way stand three other parties, each no more than a regional branch of their sister organisations in London who reject independence but have no interest in discussing reforms to devolution, even in light of changes wrought by the pandemic. Any sane person would have reason to look at this as a bizarre facsimile of a democracy and opt-out. But in Scotland we cannot do so.
In reality the political process, as it stands today, does not need citizens’ input. Elections are spectacles, events driven by media where democratic participation can be reduced to the solitary act of voting. That around half of eligible voters will probably not take part in this election in no way disrupts the fashioning of any narratives around ‘Scotland’ and what ‘it’ thinks about ‘the’ constitutional question, or indeed any other matter.
Not voting is not necessarily a principled position, a lifelong tendency, a protest or anything else. We do not know because it does not serve the process to know. Our democracy does nothing to account for why citizens might not vote: ‘spoiling’ ballots is recorded as a form of mistake, carefully masking any intent. An illustrative term in itself, as though the ballot might have been better used some other way. It’s notable that we glorify voting but not participation, involvement but not consent. The principle that citizens should be able to demonstrate dissent from a political process and reject its claims of representation or governance over them should be integral to representative democracies, but in practice it is often not.
Any legitimate democratic system must acknowledge dissent from itself. For an election to have democratic legitimacy it needs to be able to show that it has the trust of the people, and to examine how and why that trust has broken down. In cases where a large minority of voters do not take part in the democratic process the question should arise: why do these people not feel this government is worth their say?
In theory a ‘Reject all’ or ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) option may at least offer a safeguard against the prospect of unpopular governments being awarded overwhelming mandates. Allowing citizens to reject all the candidates before them and, assuming sufficient numbers, force a rerun of the election in their constituency or region.
Seeing the consent principle applied on ballot papers in Scotland would not in itself improve the quality of our democracy, or create new possibilities for any particular political party or group. It would, however, guarantee citizens the opportunity to reject a political process which invariably claims to speak for them regardless of how they are treated. The process as it currently exists allows no examination of why people choose not to vote, obscuring the ways in which communities and classes are routinely disenfranchised long before an election is called.
When people are told it doesn’t matter who they vote for, so long as they vote, they are being told that their vote doesn’t count at all: that political involvement ends at the polling station boundary when they return to their lives. Almost inevitably this includes swathes of distinctly political activity which is of no use to the mainstream or official political process, seen most often in the lives of people most actively disenfranchised by the electoral system and official bureaucracies which stem from it.
Similarly people who do not vote are often labelled as ‘apathetic’: another self-referential, neutral-sounding phrase laced with character judgment, implying that they fail to recognise the inherent goodness of the opportunity before them.
Upending a system in which voter discontent can simply be ignored for moral reasons should be an urgent project in the face of right-wing populism. Long before the US Republican party began actively disenfranchising African American voters in key states, there had been international evidence that right-wing parties in advanced economies thrive on lower turnout. Uncommitted voters have long been seen as a liability for right-wing campaigns based on elitist candidates, high wealth donations and policies which would do little or nothing to serve the interests of most of the electorate. When we hear centrists extol the moral qualities of elections and confuse disenfranchisement for personal character, we are hearing music for the right.
Electoral disenfranchisement is not always linked so visibly to injustice as in the case of racialised policing in the US, or corrupt officials being propped up by ‘safe-seat’ parliamentarians in the face of public scandals. Elections to the Sennedd in Wales have seen lower turnout than in Scotland, with turnout consistently below 50%. In cases like this, and in any constituency where turnout is chronically low, there should be an opportunity for citizens to register their dissatisfaction with the political process as a whole.
Similarly any reform of the process should not be geared to delivering on the misguided idea of elections being a sacred bond between electorate and elected, elected and power. Measures to recognise dissent should not be undertaken to assuage the enfranchised. Elections are one form of political participation, with their significance easily warped by powerful interests. Instead NOTA or other forms of dissent recognition may be one kind of safeguard, a means of keeping the electoral system on its guard against disenfranchisement, and incentivising the powerful – or the potentially powerful – to respond to the needs of as many citizens as possible in their policies.
No representative political process can legitimise power without also accounting for how representative it is. At a minimum there must be an opportunity for people to record their rejection of the process and its capacity to speak for them. A NOTA measure may be a part of this, but by itself would not be a remedy. It might be the case that representative democracy is a necessity for any functioning modern state, but there needs also to be a more expansive notion of political participation beyond simply voting. Without a culture of political criticism we will always run the risk of enfranchising governments to disenfranchise others, turning the electoral process into a rubber stamp for untold injustice and harm
Instead we need to reach to the roots the crisis of representative democracy, the growth of managerial politics defended by the moralism of those who rage at ‘apathy’, and re-engage with the disenfranchised on a much wider political territory.