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Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Over the next 12 months, voters in countries representing more than half of the world’s population will get the chance to head to the ballot box — a record-breaking year for democracy. And yet in many places, the voting bloc with the most influence on the outcome won’t be the one backing the right-wing candidate or the left-wing one, the populist or the establishment runner. Instead it will be a different kind of group entirely: non-voters.
On November 5, Americans look very likely to face the same choice as they did four years ago, though the candidates might seem considerably less appealing this time around even to their previous supporters. President Joe Biden, who currently has approval ratings of 38 per cent (even lower than Donald Trump’s rating at the same point in his presidency) would be 86 years old by the time his second term was out, while Trump himself, who would be 82, currently faces 91 counts of felony across four criminal charges.
Although turnout jumped to the highest level in decades in 2020, that was only to 62.8 per cent of the voting-age public, according to Pew research. That both of the likely candidates for 2024 are viewed so negatively by huge portions of the population is likely to keep many away from polling booths come November.
And while Britain’s record might historically have been better than America’s, it now ranks two places lower than the US in Pew’s rankings (it is 33rd, just below Colombia, with only 62.3 per cent of the voting-age population having turned up at the last election). As in the US, a lack of enthusiasm for either of the main candidates — recent polls show prime minister Rishi Sunak has a favourability rating of 24 per cent and opposition leader Keir Starmer at 30 per cent — is likely to keep voters at home.
I can’t blame the 37.7 per cent in the UK who didn’t cast a vote for any candidate in 2019: I was one of them. I decided to register my dissatisfaction with the choices on offer by spoiling my ballot, an act of rebellion in which 117,100 other people joined me, a 58 per cent increase on 2017. I decided this was better than not showing up: I wanted to demonstrate that I was not merely apathetic or disengaged, but deeply unhappy about the options available.
Much has been said and written on the “moral duty” to vote. But what are our real democratic obligations? Do we really have a responsibility to take part in the process even when we do not like any of the candidates or when we don’t feel like our vote will make a difference anyway, or when we don’t feel we know enough about the people on the ballot to decide? Many people think we do: a 2022 Pew survey on what it takes to be “a good member of society” found 69 per cent of Americans believe voting in elections is “very important”.
It is striking that in the same survey, only a little over a third of respondents said they considered it “very important” to follow events in US politics. Is it really the moral choice to make a decision on who should be leading the country when you don’t even know what is going on in it?
Jason Brennan, professor of ethics and public policy at Georgetown University and author of Against Democracy, argues that voting when you are badly informed is morally worse than not voting at all. He believes that there are more meaningful ways to contribute to society given how unlikely each individual vote is to count (he cites research showing that even in a swing state an individual voter has only a 1 in 10mn chance of deciding the presidential election). “The reason people give for voting is always something you can discharge some other way more effectively,” he tells me. Brennan suggests that taking part in voluntary work or giving to charity are far more impactful ways to contribute.
All this is not to say we should be complacent about non-voters: if we want a representative democracy, we need to find a way to encourage people to start engaging more with what is going on. Some people, like former Labour spin-doctor Alastair Campbell, argue that the way forward is compulsory voting, as countries like Australia already have. I disagree: apart from anything else, there is no evidence that compulsory voting leads to more knowledgeable or engaged citizens.
My decision not to vote was a conscious one. But many of those who don’t vote are simply not engaging at all, and most — in both the US and UK — tend to be significantly poorer and more disadvantaged than the average. Britain’s Institute for Public Policy Research estimates that the wealth gap between those who do and don’t vote in this year’s general election will be the biggest in 60 years.
Unless we can make the case for participation, there will be less and less incentive for politicians to help those who need it most.
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