Honey I'm Still Free, Take a Chance On Me
Voting, Not Voting, and Voting for No One
Turnout for New Zealand’s national elections has been decreasing for some time now, dropping from 93.7% in 1984 to a 124-year low of 74.2% in 2011.Since 2020 it has increased again to 81.54%. Who knows if this will last? Maybe it signals a genuine renewal in voter participation. Or maybe it’s just a temporary response to the feeling of urgency that seems to have gripped the world since about 2016.
All else equal, a democracy based on engagement and participation is better than one based on ignorance and apathy. But a large turnout doesn’t necessarily mean that all else will be equal. A high proportion of voters may confer legitimacy on a government. It doesn’t mean the government will be any wiser.
Jim Bolger and Geoffrey Palmer have both gone on the record as saying they think voting should be compulsory.Even if it doesn’t improve the quality of our democracy, numbers from Australia - where voting in the federal election has been compulsory since 1924 - suggest that more people would actually do it.
I reckon it’s not a bad idea, but only if the first option on the ballot becomes None of the below.
Casting an informed vote isn’t as simple as determining which of the options you like most. You have to determine which parties hold beliefs like yours, which requires you to first know what you actually believe.
Then you must consider which policies will best achieve those beliefs. Small parties don’t have the resources to come up with properly planned and costed policies. Unforeseen problems - such as a pandemic - will throw all of that out of the window anyway.
With so much uncertainty, you have you ask yourself what decisions you think a candidate would make. What would they compromise on? Which is to beg the question as to whether they would even get into power, in which case, are their MPs any good? Who will they work with? Can they cooperate with the public sector and businesses and the rest of the country?
An informed vote is not an omniscient vote. There will always be matters we don’t understand, at which point we must admit that our vote is just as much about who we trust. Voting isn’t a technical calculation, it’s an act of faith, and it cannot be reduced to a number or measured with a ruler or political compass.
This isn’t to say we should never vote, just that the “least worst” choice is a subjective and probably arbitrary notion. It’s a mistake to think we have to choose one of the available options. We don’t. Sometimes it’s perfectly sensible not to. And if none of the options seem good, don’t vote for any of them. Spoil your ballot, vote None of the below.
This is not a rejection of democracy. Not every problem needs to (or even can be) solved by government. In discussing compulsory voting, we always forget the other methods, mechanisms, and movements at work on every level of our country: family, friends, neighbours, iwi, unions, voluntary association, direct action, charity, caritas, sadqah, mutual aid, cooperation… These institutions can be better positioned to offer more personal solutions than an impersonal government ever could. We can seek a meaningful life and flourishing society through all of these things. If we took a more direct stake in them - rather than believing our obligations to the world are discharged when we tick a circle every three years - perhaps then our votes wouldn’t even matter.
General Elections 1853 - 2011. By the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Updated November 24 2016. Retrieved from https://nzhistory.govt.nz/politics/election-day/general-elections. The 1977 turnout was officially lower than 2011, but this was due to 361,000 outdated and duplicate entries being included in the electoral rolls.
Voter Turnout Statistics for the 2020 General Election. By the Electoral Commission. Retrieved from https://elections.nz/democracy-in-nz/historical-events/2020-general-election-and-referendums/voter-turnout-statistics-for-the-2020-general-election/
Former PMs support compulsory voting in NZ. Craig McCulloch. Published 7 April 2017, Radio NZ. Retrieved from https://www.rnz.co.nz/news/political/328358/former-pms-support-compulsory-voting-in-nz
When it became compulsory for those registered to vote in the federal election participation jumped from 59.38% to 91.35%. It has remained in the low-to-mid 90s ever since. See: Voter Turnout 1901 - 2014. By the Australian Electoral Commission. Updated December 2019. Retrieved from https://www.aec.gov.au/elections/federal_elections/voter-turnout.htmx