No harm it seems to be less free. Not today… Don’t create a norm invalidating invalid voting

I am routinely told that I am a terrible person.  The criticism is not far wrong.  More recently, the criticism is that I didn’t vote properly and have thus let down a thousand generations of noble strugglers who died for my right to vote.

Participating in democracy means enduring a plethora of micro-coercions.  This is legitimate.  We are legitimate.  What you are doing is legitimate.  Why is it legitimate?  Because it is moral.  You are participating.  This is dialogue.  This is discourse.  Democracy.  Voting.  Ballots.

Democratic legitimacy relies upon the Absurd.  We have to collectively accept an amazing amount of nonsense in order to think that power is legitimate and moral.  The moment you try to interrogate those foundations, you quickly discover how flimsy and pathetic they are.

I recently had a left wing, progressive journalist try to explain to me that constitutions are based on consent and that Indigenous Australians have consented to being governed by the constitution.  This rather surprising result is explicable only if you don’t question the Absurd structures of power: a constitutional democracy relies upon the consent of the governed; we live in a constitutional democracy; therefore everybody being governed has consented to this.

It’s for this reason that Conservatism is the best political ideology.

Needless to say, systemically oppressed people do not consent to being governed.  Consent suggests that there was an alternative available.  Systemically oppressed people are coerced into participating.

That last sentence might be read to suggest that only systemically oppressed people are coerced into participating.  That’s not true, but their coercion is the most obvious and difficult to justify.  If you agree that systemically oppressed people are coerced into participating, then it is easier to see that everybody is coerced.

But you might not agree.  You might be really, really committed to the idea – as the progressive journalist was – that we’re all governed by consent.  Ideological commitments run deep.

In the case of the systemically oppressed, the most obvious coercions are in the form of physical violence.  If you do not participate in civilised society, we will ask the police and the courts to deal with you.

Similarly, we can see the impacts of economic coercion.  If you do not behave, we will cancel your welfare, kick you out of housing, restrict your ability to drive, &c.

Finally, and most insidiously, we have cultural coercion.  If you want to have access to the things you need, we need you to perform in particular ways and we need you to believe particular things.

The more privileged you are, the more you can escape these forms of coercion.  I’m unlikely to be physically accosted by the State.  In my late teens, I’d be sent to deal with the fuzz when we were drinking in the park.  Why?  Because my accent, demeanour, and skin colour meant that I was least likely to encounter problems.

I’m in a position where I can escape most forms of economic coercion.  I don’t really have to worry too much about rent or where my next meal is coming from.  I have the luxury of being able to pick and choose what sort of work I’ll take on.

Cultural coercion, on the other hand, I cannot escape.  I dress conventionally in order to navigate the social systems of employment.  I treat insufferable people with respect because I’ve been taught that insubordination is poor behaviour.  I make sure my face is visible to all the security cameras.  I act in ways that make everybody else feel comfortable so that society as a whole can function.

The rhetoric about ‘democratic duty’ and ‘suffragettes suffering so that you can vote’ are all ways that we are coerced into feeling an obligation to behave a particular way.

One place that the conservative and the radical might disagree is whether or not coercion can be good.  So we have cultural and social norms that coerce us into behaving in particular ways – for example, not damaging other people’s property.  I might think this is a good form of coercion; the radical might disagree for good reasons about the nature of property.  I might think that public visibility is a good thing; the radical might argue that being coerced out of anonymity is bad for society.

But here I think the conservative and the radical might agree that being coerced into supporting a political party is not necessarily a good thing.

Compulsory voting (a good thing, by the way) means that we are compelled to vote.  It forces political parties to ensure that they take into consideration the whole electorate and not just the minority who is able to be mobilised.  Having the option of being able to cast an invalid vote deliberately also signals to political parties the need to engage with the electorate.  Voters need to show up and be heard, but they do not need to consent to supporting a party or any party.

That’s important.  I live in an electorate where there was no option but to return an ALP candidate.  As such, the Coalition has no incentive to invest in good candidates to oppose the incumbents.  As such, my electorate has the highest rate of deliberately invalid votes.  If that rate increases, there emerges an incentive for the political parties to propose higher quality candidates: instead of trying to get a swing from one political party to another, they need to secure the votes of people who are saying that they don’t like any of the candidates.

We should not allow the privileged – and it’s always the most insufferably privileged – to reinforce the development of a norm that we’re morally obliged to cast a valid vote.  When we do that, we take away from others one of the most important democratic rights: exit.


Author: Mark Fletcher

Mark Fletcher is a Canberra-based blogger and policy wonk who writes about conservatism, atheism, and popular culture. Read his blog at OnlyTheSangfroid. He tweets at @ClothedVillainy

One thought on “No harm it seems to be less free. Not today… Don’t create a norm invalidating invalid voting”

  1. As always, a good read. And as is often the case, within it there’s a delicious kernel of truth embedded in a fermenting fruit of contextual relativity… Limiting the argument to your own particular electorate is a useful way to make your point. Casting a formal vote is not going to change the outcome, so a blank ballot or a cock ‘n’balls or an artistically rendered sketch of a donkey makes a no-risk statement. I would argue that that situation does not hold in an electorate like Hindmarsh right now. But that’s a debate for over a beer or so.

    While it’s not a flaw in your argument, an important consideration is the audience for those protests… AEC booth/central counting teams and party scruiteneers. Neither group particularly gives a toss, and no count is taken of deliberate vs mistaken informals. Mind you, the general response to such ballots ranges from contempt (for blank/racist/unredeemed obscenity) to amusement (for pithy witticisms/clever substitutions of candidate names with lists of unassociated people/characters/objects/creatures) to total admiration (highly artistic renderings of donkeys/wit of the first water, etc.) But that’s as far as it goes.

    I do have to take issue with one of your points – the rate of deliberate informals in your particular electorate. The rate of informal voting in that electorate is among the 10 lowest nationally. Regarding deliberation in casting informals, there is a simple rule of thumb: compare booth-based informals with postal-based informality. The latter votes are generally cast by people who WANT to vote, as opposed to the former where compulsion is often the motivation. In the case we’re looking at, the ratio between the two is about 1:2. The national average is about 1:2.5.

    And I can back that up by experience as a scruitineer (at one booth, only, admittedly, but it was the ACT’s 2nd largest turnout booth). Scrawled on/altered ballots were at a mimimum. There were a lot of blank ballots, but likewise there were a heap that simply got it wrong. Things moved too fast for an accurate impression, but I think the 1:2 ratio holds for my experience.

    Finally, a note about some of the informals. Generally, people followed the Senate ballot instructions very well. But I wonder if those instructions skewed people’s approach to the Reps paper. A number had 1,2,3,4,6 on ’em. Go figure!

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