As I write, the European elections have just finished, and the British news media (something to blog about later) are marvelling at the success of a party of bigots led by a man its founder describes as “a dimwitted racist“. This party, which its own spokesperson describes as unappealing to “the educated, cultural and young“, topped the UK polls and relegated the Conservative and Labour parties to second and third place, for the first time in over a century. UKIP must be incredibly popular, mustn’t it?
The trouble is, these results don’t actually reflect how popular any of the parties actually are. I mean, sure, 27.49% of those who struggled to scrawl an ‘X’ on a bit of paper put their ‘X’ next to UKIP. But that doesn’t mean 27.49% of the country supports UKIP – not when 64% of people did not vote. Here are those results again:
Instead of sending 70 MEPs to Brussels, perhaps we should be sending only 25? (Say, 9 UKIP, 7 Labour, 7 Conservative, a couple of Greens?) Should electoral results reflect the ignorance, apathy and disengagement of non-voters as well?
“Young people don’t vote because parties don’t appeal to them. Parties don’t appeal to young voters because they don’t vote.” ~Professor Jennifer Curtin
Compulsory voting may well confer greater legitimacy on the results, but only if a ‘none of the above’ option is available (raised in the interview here by Professor David Farrell, University College Dublin); otherwise people can only resort to spoiling their ballot papers to register their dissatisfaction with the candidates or parties on offer.
In systems using first past the post, a party with the largest minority can win, even if most people did not vote for them; supporters of smaller (but still significant) parties lose out on representation if their supporters are thinly scattered. If offered the choice, it’s possible that voters used to dominant, established parties prefer to maintain the status quo, squashing any attempt to change the system to a fairer one of proportional representation (such as ranking votes by preference).
Quirks like this and the Electoral College in the USA could distort the outcomes of elections. Parties will take certain constituencies for granted, ignoring them and focusing on the few ‘swing voters’ that might make a difference. No wonder many voters feel disengaged from it all. The way constituencies are chopped up affects results too. In the UK, it is biased in favour of the Labour Party, as well as the Liberal Democrats (who instead lost out in a big way from First Past The Post, winning 23% of votes, but less than 9% of Parliamentary seats).
Even if voters did get the number and proportion of candidates that accurately reflected the way they voted, so their views were represented proportionally and geographically, this still doesn’t guarantee that those votes would count for anything.
Modern elections cost money. Affluent, influential individuals or groups offer to finance party campaigns in the hopes that their interests are given priority if they win. This gives the backers of a politician’s campaign far greater say over a party’s policies than individual voters could ever hope to match. This has led to claims that the USA and the UK are properly described as oligarchies. (As opposed, I suppose, to countries where, if you’re outnumbered by idiots who all agree, they win.)
With all this in mind, it’s very easy to see why people can get disengaged from politics and vote reluctantly (if at all), even if they’re voting to stop a group getting into power, rather than to favour those closest to their ideals. As George Carlin puts it (coincidentally similar to the phrase used by computer gamers), we’re owned.