I won’t be voting, and with very good reason

Daniel Pryor April 2, 2015 5


The editorial team at The Backbencher have decided to resurrect the site in time for the 2015 General Election. With this in mind, it might seem strange that the first piece I’m writing will be one that condemns voting. However, I’m of the view that active non-voting is a fantastic way of changing society for the better.

In the closest US Congressional election, the probability of a decisive vote is (at most) 1 in 10,000 (0.01%). The chance of an average US voter determining the result of the Presidential Election is 1 in 60 million. Though equivalent figures for the United Kingdom are difficult to find, it seems reasonable to assume that the average UK voter has virtually no chance of influencing the outcome of the General Election.

Though one might argue that an infinitesimally tiny chance of enacting social change is still worth a shot, they are completely ignoring the costs of voting. If you have any interest in making an informed vote, you must spend time carefully examining the manifestoes of each party, along with making a judgement about how likely they are to keep their pledges. Following this, you must either travel to the polling station and back or sign up for postal voting.

This year, in the time I would otherwise have spent on the voting process, I’m instead going to work for a couple of hours at a food bank near my university. I’d encourage anyone reading this to spend a couple of hours engaged in volunteer work rather than voting. This will improve the wellbeing of other people far, far more than poring over manifestoes and trudging down to the town hall: as will other private activities. As Jason Brennan puts it in ‘The Ethics of Voting:

“[M]any activities stereotypically considered private, such as being a conscientious employee, making art, running a for-profit business, or pursuing scientific discoveries, can also be exercises of civic virtue.  For many people, in fact, these are better ways to exercise civic virtue.”

If you are reading this article, it is likely that you are more politically informed than the vast majority of the UK population. It might be objected that the obligation to vote falls most strongly upon the most politically informed, due to the harmful systemic biases that especially affect less informed voters. I would reply that the politically informed have the most to lose from the distraction of voting. They are often those who are most capable of changing society through other means. The mental process of voting lends itself to tribalism and unthinking dogmatism. It also closes off possibilities outside the mutually exclusive bundles of policies offered by political parties.

Civic-mindedness is a wonderful thing, and I strongly admire those who concern themselves with societal issues, but voting is one of the most ineffectual ways of changing the world. By not voting (and explaining why), you will highlight that meaningful progress comes through participation in civil society. Don’t vote; change the country.

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  • Liam Deacon

    What is this, right-wing russell brandism? We’ve covered this; if you’re that aggrieved with politics, at least turn up and spoil the ballot paper. Otherwise, you really don’t count, regardless of however many of your mates you “explain” your one man crusade too. Also, and rather cynically, the very act of working at a food bank has become inherently political because of the way they’ve been banded through the media to further a particular narrative. Volunteer at charity shop or some shit if you must.

  • NielsR

    That’s a creative alternative, but I think I disagree with your reasoning. I agree with the costs and uncertainties you list (though ‘walking to the polling station is a but weak). But if you’re in a marginal your vote counts more heavily. If you’re in a safe seat, it might be worth the walk to make it a less safe one.

    Even if you reject those options, and stick to not voting, it would be more productive to claim to be undecided. ‘I won’t vote’ shuts down discussion, without discussion the tribalism you mention goes unchallenged.

    And do lower turnouts of more tribal voters lead to better choices at future elections? I’d be surprised. Nor will working at a food bank. You’d do better writing to the candidates to explain why they will not get your vote.

  • Intonsus

    Why not do both?