Does Your Vote Matter

on Sunday, 29 June 2003. Posted in Issue 42 Pensions Time Bomb? Equity and Justice in the Pensions Regime, 2002

Seamus O'Gorman, SJ

April, 2002

1. Election day - 2002

It\'s a bright sunny day in May 2002. At last, after five long years it\'s polling day again. You grab a moment and run around to your polling station. You\'re in the little booth, attached pencil in hand. There\'s a long list of names in front of you: some you recognise, others not really. You take a deep breath. You begin to tick off the boxes… 1… 2… 3… from best to worst or maybe 14, 13, 12 from worst to best, depending on the kind of person you are.

Many others will not grab a moment to vote. They will stay away, largely ignoring what is going on on polling day. The whole election event will leave them "underwhelmed"; they may be slightly bemused to realise that some people still think voting is such an important thing. They will wonder at the naiveté or inexplicable zeal that would mean you could tear yourself away from the alternative goods life offers - an evening\'s rest, the football match, the soap, the pints - so as to mark a few numbers on a card.


2. Do Non Voters Count?

That Slip of Paper
Not voting is a way of voting. In some ways, in a democracy, it could be argued that it is one of the more interesting ways. Much will be made of the fact that the only real poll is the one on election day. Certainly that poll counts more than all the opinion polls. But in a healthy democratic society, the count of those who will express their preference by not voting at all also deserves consideration as an indicator of the will of the people.

Of necessity, it is a difficult task to draw an accurate profile of these "voters". Clearly some short-term non voters do not vote for more accidental practical reasons, such as lack of time, or being away from home. There are people who fail to vote out of laziness and a lack of concern for society. It is easy to dismiss more deliberate and long-term non voters as people failing in their democratic responsibility. Some even suggest the state should force all citizens to vote. Before doing that it is worth considering what kind of people might not vote. Among them, it seems likely there will be very many people who carry in their bodies the wounds of what living in Ireland does to people today. Might this diverse group be united by a sense that - despite the almost unanimous media discourse in the opposite direction - the last thing they want is more of the same? Many of those who suffer the greatest deprivation in our society cannot conceive that the political system would ever make a genuine effort to solve their problems. Among them, there are many young Irish people at risk from the world of drugs and homelessness who will not vote. Unskilled Irish emigrants have no vote. There will not be many refugees and asylum seekers who can vote.

Before you start marking your card, you might glance around your polling station and ask yourself where are the young people, where are the sick people, where are the homeless people, where are the people suffering from the drug scourge, where are those living in communities the Celtic Tiger bypassed, where are the asylum seekers? Do they have no interest in who sits in the Dáil?

3. Factors influencing non-voting
It is virtually impossible to predict why people will not vote. However, in order to make a more convincing case for the importance of voting as a significant and meaningful way of participating in society, and especially of contributing to the creation of a more just society, it is worth giving some thought to understanding why people may not vote. It seems that the Irish political system has difficulties persuading some people of this because of both image and structural problems.

A. Image
i) A Taste of corruption

Some people no doubt will choose not to vote as a result of a sense of disenchantment with the whole of official public life. While the numbers ever proven to have been directly involved in corruption may remain small, the whole system remains tarnished. The silence of so many who must have had questions leaves unchallenged the impression that the system is actually designed and run by the connected for the connected. The impression that connections, whether friendly, familial or financial shape public life, deadens the will of the unconnected to get involved.

ii) Lack of real differences

Even the increased political hype around election time can add to such disenchantment. It is understandable that politicians need to compete for seats: to be elected they need to emphasise their distinctiveness. In a media age, politicians must play to the camera. The same data will be presented in totally contradictory ways. On the one side there will be proud boasts about all that has been achieved, peace in Ireland, jobs and tax cuts while the others will point to years of lost opportunity, the increase of social exclusion, the failure to develop an adequate infrastructure. Though entertaining to the politically committed, such adversarial point scoring fails to actively engage a wider public. Having experienced regular government changes over the past thirty years, many people cannot see that any of the conceivable governments will deliver such different programmes. It is almost as if the closer they come to each other the louder they shout. Nor does it seem that many people are that convinced of the trustworthiness of different parties. Elections mean promises must be made, but all know that unforeseen circumstances can result in them being undone. This is all the more so since post election coalition formation is the norm. Big promises can be made with the certainty that government formation will occasion significant post election renegotiation of government policies.

iii) Lack of representativeness

The image of politics, and what we are being asked to take seriously as our democratic duty is further restricted by the narrowness of the groups which seems to provide our political class. That only 12% of the TDs elected to the 1997 Dáil were women casts a fundamental question mark over the representativeness of the Dáil. Similarly a sense of identification with the Dáil cannot be helped by the fact that over 70% of TDS are aged over 40, while only 34% of the adult [over 21] population are over 40. The fact that so many TDs come from such a limited range of careers -teaching, law, farming and business - further hinders identification. The lack of connection gives the impression that politicians are almost as removed from the real concerns of life as the clergy.

B. Structures
i) TDs removed from policy

Beyond the problems of image there are other more substantial structural factors which seem to undermine the ability of elections to the Dáil to engage people. The extent to which deputies elected to office have any real influence over policy seems to be a lottery. The gap between your vote for a candidate who takes a stand on a particular issue and something positive happening on that seems enormous. All policy initiatives must face the battle of the constraints of Europe, of the social partnership model, of the pivotal role of ministers and of the limits set by civil service orthodoxy. While there has been some improvement in the committee system, there is still a real feeling that the ability of many politicians to input at this level is seriously restricted by their lack of resources and research back up. Elected opposition TDs and even back bench government members seem far removed from positively shaping the agenda in the direction of improving life for the most vulnerable in Irish society. The exception, typified in Independent TDs holding the balance of power, clearly proves the rule, by highlighting the relative political ineffectiveness of the many.

ii) Priority of local context

Largely incapable of influencing national policy, candidates must ever keep an eye to the local issues which offer them a chance of re-election. This is also indicated by the very high percentage of candidates who enter national politics through local politics. The amount of time they have to dedicate to attending to and responding to the wide-ranging concerns of their constituents restricts their time to make a contribution to national policy debates. Politicians are seen as people who intercede for us, largely to get things done which others should have done and should be doing anyway. Our political system, and what we as citizens have come to expect of our politicians, in effect works against people who are focused on advancing policy initiatives for the greater good of the country, not to mention of the world.

iii) Civil Service Control

Perhaps the most significant factor in weakening belief in the importance of the election system is the realisation of the strong, dominant, role played by the Civil Service. Across all departments it is clear that the Civil Service play a vital role in setting the parameters within which policy can evolve. There is much to welcome in the attempts to reform the civil service through the Strategic Management Initiative though its impact is very uneven. While the civil service undoubtedly make many positive contributions to Irish life, there does seem to be grounds for questioning whether they can provide the imaginative and groundbreaking type of thinking that is needed to tackle the most radical problems of Irish society. In the final analysis departments often seem to be able to prevent change through the power of non-decision. The more we have "government by the civil service", with departmental lines only ever changing very gradually, the less likely it is that people will rate highly the effective significance of electing politicians.

4. Reasons why voting matters
Though it is useful to try to identify these factors which may play a part in shaping a climate where voting is not supported, it is more important for the foundations of our common social and political life, to identify the positive reasons for voting.

i) Others will vote

A first case in favour of voting can be made on the most pragmatic grounds of watching what others do. If voting were so inconsequential why would so many people do it? Voting matters because for all those who will not vote, there will be many people who will vote. These will include many of those who benefit most from the successes of modern Ireland, those with jobs, with cars, with good health care, with holidays, with travel plans. It matters because the people who receive the greatest share of the benefits of living in this country, what it is, what it has become, will get out and make their preferences known.

ii) Politicians do legislate

It matters because politicians do make decisions. In the last Dáil politicians have introduced legislation on a whole range of issues which largely influence the possibilities of life for the worst off people in Irish society. This happens each year through the continual stream of legislation which is introduced and passed in relation to topics such as housing, social welfare increases, taxation, access to medical cards, immigration. The Ireland we live in is not an accident. It is a product of conscious and deliberate processes and decisions. It may seem remote. You may not read or watch Dáil reports. Yet key decisions are made, and implemented through legislation put through by ministers. The reasons they lean certain ways, and why TDs and Senators only raise certain types of questions and propose certain kinds of amendments, is because we put those politicians there, and those politicians respond largely to "our" preferences

iii) Who you vote for

How you vote matters most of all to the candidates seeking your vote. While there is much cynicism about political life, it is worth recalling the difficult and demanding lives that TDs live. In a quite unique way all TDs face the fact that their continued participation depends on your support at the ballot box. There is no guaranteed job security. Even when elected they have to combine numerous tasks including staying active in local politics, merging local and national concerns, looking out for the party while also protecting one\'s own seat. Overall pay even allowing for pension rights - despite popular perceptions - is not high compared to what many could hope to earn in other areas of life.

Those who offer themselves as candidates deserve to be treated with a basic respect. One of the best ways to do this is not to just treat them as names on the ballot sheet. It is possible to meet with candidates, to get to know the kind of people they are, how they will respond to various challenges, and their views on a broad variety of issues. This can be done through talking with them and through reading their election materials. Most importantly it can be done by asking them real questions about the real concerns people have.

Taking candidates seriously as persons would also mean acknowledging that they are more than party members and local representatives. Like us all, candidates will behave to an extent as they are treated. The main reason we have a high degree of localism and partisanship in Irish politics is because people use their votes that way. Citizens do honour to their political representatives when they seek to find out where the candidates stand on major issues. So when they or their representatives come knocking at our doors, we don\'t have to make easy promises about our votes. I t is possible to ask them about what we think are the crucial issues for Ireland: what they will do about homelessness in Ireland, about the increasing gap between the poor and the rich, about education and health systems which discriminate so cynically against the poorest, about the scandal of how we process asylum seekers, about their readiness to support Ireland\'s taking a more active role in support of global poverty reduction.

iv) Voting purposefully

It is also worth remembering that a significant number of candidates will be elected by a small number of votes. The example of the US presidential election, the recent abortion referendum, and the memory that marginal seats have been decided in the most dramatic way by a few handfuls of votes reminds us in a graphic way of the potential decisiveness of a few votes. For this reason, it is important to fully use the potential of the Single Transferable Vote. With this vote you have a chance to express a series of preferences either negative or positive. It is particularly important to use opportunities personally and collectively to lobby candidates who are likely to be competing for last seats in constituencies.

For those who are unhappy with some of the distortions in the representativeness of the Irish political scene this is something that can be addressed by positive discrimination in favour of women candidates, or of younger candidates. Similarly, for those whose complaint is the dominance of pragmatism, and a lack of idealism amongst political leaders, a voting pattern that reflects that concern is a way of contributing to change. For example, it is not wasting a vote to give a first preference to a candidate who, though unlikely to be elected, takes a more idealistic position. Strong first preference votes for candidates who take a stand on hard issues which require analysis is a way of communicating to all the candidates strong electoral concern about certain issues.

5. Conclusion: The bigger picture behind your vote
In the end the decision to vote on a day in May will be a matter of free choice. It may come down to a question of finding the time on the day. But voting can also be usefully seen as part of a much bigger project. Marking your preferences on the day is important, but it is only one specific part of participating in the democratic political process. Just as we have a say in who represents us, we can also follow up by keeping in touch with our representatives, by lobbying them, and most especially by following up on their promises. To expect that change will come about, in the direction we hope, just because you mark a few preferences is to expect too much.

The opportunity to vote is not just about the moment of writing a few numbers down. Every time you exercise your vote you exercise a democratic right that for most of human history has been denied most people, and to women up \'till the early part of the twentieth century. It is a right which has been earned by bravery and courageous resilience throughout history. The right to vote - still denied in many countries around the world - gives all of us a chance to reflect now and think more deeply on the kind of society we want to be part of. It provides an opportunity to discuss this with friends, family, work colleagues. It gives us a chance to say which direction we want our country to be led.

How we vote, how we prepare ourselves, what leads us one way or another says a lot about the kind of people we are. It is also an indication of whether we believe a better society is possible; that working for change is worth doing, even if change is messy, slow and not easily achieved. For all the limitations of our society, it indicates a belief that is better to be involved, and to support the good efforts others make than to begrudge their failures. There are plenty of options where we can vote for our own narrow self interest, where we can vote for the local candidate or party which is most likely to look after our concerns. Manifestos will be shaped with lots of promises about favours that will be done. Candidates will promise goods for our area or region.

But another possibility is also before us, when we have that pencil in our hands. In our own way we can break the mould, and take steps towards a more inclusive vision of Irish society. If we are lucky enough to have enough, it is possible to go beyond asking what is in it for us; it is possible to ask what it is in it for the worst off. We could vote for those we believe are serious about an Ireland which would be less embarrassing in terms of how it treats the homeless child, the chronically sick older
person, the desperate asylum seeker. It is possible to vote for those we believe will do their best to ensure that those who are now last in Irish society will in time become the first.

And of course, if having surveyed all the options, having heard all the promises, you can still find nobody you believe it is worth voting for, the option always exist that you could stand yourself the next time round. You should just be ready for a sunny day in May 2006, or there abouts!