In the run-up to the Canadian federal election, I whinged at anyone who’d listen about the myriad failings of the candidates in my riding. They tended to listen with sympathetic grins on their faces: after all, who doesn’t like complaining about politicians? But when I got to the punchline — “I don’t see why I should bother to vote at all” — those grins dropped into slack-jawed horror. How could I not vote? Didn’t I know how fortunate I was to have the sacred Franchise?
At the same time, some of my more politically-active friends and acquaintances started muttering darkly — this was usually unrelated — about how people should be forced to vote, like they are in Australia. (These people tended to say “legally obliged” rather than “forced”, but we all know it’s the same thing.) Apparently this was to be the cure for voter ignorance and apathy, though I never managed to figure out how threatening people with fines for not doing something they don’t care about in the first place is supposed to make them care enough to do tens of hours of research.
Voting, I’m told, is my Responsibility To Society*.
Well, okay. It may be true that a right ignored is a right undermined, and while I don’t think Canadians are in danger of losing the franchise because people like me have apparently-unreasonable political standards I can kind of convince myself that there’s a point to that argument. Rather than not vote at all, I suggest, I could spoil my ballot. Hey, I’m making my voice heard, and what I’m trying to say is: “Fuck you all!”
Oh, nonononono. That won’t do. Spoiling my ballot is irresponsible — and furthermore, nobody really cares how many voters spoil their ballots. (Seems to me that it’s a pretty unambiguous signal of across-the-board disgust.) I am enjoined to vote for someone — an argument hastily amended to include only registered candidates. (What? I thought that Zombie Barry Goldwater would do a great job representing my riding!)
So there are a set number of politicians — really quanta of party influence, in Canada’s stiflingly-controlled parliamentary system — for whom I’m permitted to vote, lest I risk social stigma and the opprobrium of my friends and family. Well, I can sometimes deal with that: last election, for example, I got to vote for a Libertarian candidate. If you’ve ever voted Libertarian, you know how that turns out — everyone you tell about it gives you shit for “throwing your vote away”.
The “throwing your vote away” concept has some unsettling consequences in a multi-party, first-past-the-post, strong-party-whip political system like Canada’s.
In general, it’s rational to expect that your vote won’t matter. Of course, in aggregate, it might — it’s just that your particular vote is vastly unlikely to matter if you cast it for one of your riding’s strong candidates. Voting for a weak candidate is, of course, throwing your vote away, and guaranteeing that it won’t matter up to wildly improbable statistical outliers. So you should only vote for candidates who poll well, because they’re the only candidates for whom you can vote without knowing that your vote is futile.
There are a few equilibria for that rule. One of ‘em is the locked-up riding, such as (say) damn near anywhere in rural Alberta: if you’re not voting Conservative, you’re doomed to lose. Toronto used to be the Liberal equivalent, which is why its variegated political landscape is such a big fucking deal. But the changes to Toronto’s political landscape showed up in the polls, which leads to a different equilibrium: that where a subset of the declared candidates are polling well.
Even so, if you insist that people vote for candidates who have a decent chance of winning, you end up eliminating a lot of candidates, including those from established parties in “lost” ridings. For example, I’d have “thrown my vote away” just as decisively in the previous election had I voted Liberal instead of Libertarian, but none of the condescending prickdrizzles who tut-tutted me for voting my conscience would have dared suggest that a vote for the LPC candidate was a vote wasted. The math is the same, but the Liberals have a history of success at the national level, and that makes it different.
Speaking of success at the national level: the same argument applies for candidate selection (still using the dubious metric that one’s vote is only legitimate if it has a chance of influencing the balance of power). Since free votes in Parliament are vanishingly rare, elected Members of Parliament — who aren’t Cabinet material, at least — are primarily useful as quanta of power for their party’s leader. So if you vote for someone (who may be polling well in your riding) whose party is unlikely to form a government, you’re still throwing your vote away: even if your candidate is elected, your party’s just going to spend the next four and a half years pissing into the wind.
This leads to the dubious conclusion that no-one should have voted Liberal in 1984, since there was no damn way they’d form a majority.
As with most annoying social phenomena, we can dissect this one with Hanson’s Razor and see how it works. Voting — or at least bloviating about the importance of said institution — signals in-group membership (“I’m a Real Canadian, casting my vote and everything!”), whereas not voting signals heterodoxy. Furthermore, since voting is by its nature irrational, calling attention to the matter makes acutely uncomfortable the people who (a) like to showcase their tribal loyalties but (b) don’t like to admit that all they’re doing is showcasing their tribal loyalties. As a friend of mine is fond of pointing out: grass-eaters get awfully dangerous when they stampede.
* Being a strong believer in negative liberties, I figure my only responsibility to “society” is to refrain from hurting people, and certainly not to endorse the use of aggressive violence against peaceful and unwilling citizens, but that’s neither here nor there.