Eusebius McKaiser. File picture: Jason Boud
Eusebius McKaiser. File picture: Jason Boud

You’d be stupid not to vote

By OPINION Time of article published Jul 25, 2016

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You don’t have a duty to vote, but you’d be stupid not to, writes Eusebius McKaiser.

Whichever way you look at it, voting is more prudent than not voting. Let’s think through the options.

Most importantly, whether you vote or not, municipalities will continue to exist on August 4, with councillors who have been elected by those who decided to vote. Municipalities, in turn, have enormous power and influence over your life, which you can't escape just on account of not having voted.

This means, practically speaking, that whatever the quality of your reasons for abstaining or spoiling a ballot, your reasons won’t stop you from being legally compelled to pay taxes and to be subject to the policies and various laws that are applicable to you, not just as a citizen of the country, but in particular as a resident in the municipality in which you live.

It’s surely better to shape the make-up of the municipality whose powers will affect your life than to leave that process to others who have no reason to take account of your preferences when they make their voting choices.

Sometimes it is tempting to be smug about your reasons for being politically disillusioned with all the main choices on a ballot paper. The ward candidates may all be useless prospects in your honest opinion (if you even know who they are) and, on the proportional representation ballot, you may find the familiar brands of the major parties anxiety-inducing, with memories of how much serious beef you have with each one of them.

Not voting, in that kind of scenario, might be the most accurate expression of your political assessment of the options placed before you. You don’t like any of them, so why make a cross next to any of them, right? Well, no.

This kind of reasoning is coherent but imprudent and not compelling. I used to think that, especially in relation to national elections, it is too heart-wrenching to vote for a party that you don't support wholeheartedly in terms of their policies, leadership, and so on. After all, the legal meaning of my vote, surely, is that my vote legitimises the policies of the party I vote for.

But this is too neat, too theoretical, too ideologically precious, I now think. A proper cost-benefit analysis of not voting, as opposed to voting reluctantly, favours voting reluctantly. That is so purely because of the foreseeable reality that governance structures aren’t going to disappear just because voter turnout is low. So there is no point in lying to yourself about the non-existing practical benefits to staying away from the polls.

In other words, while, in some moral political sense, not voting indicates a degree of disapproval of the entire political machinery, the history of voting in democracies across the world has shown us that the electoral system has never been seriously wounded by voter apathy or voter disillusionment. We simply, over the course of electoral histories everywhere, think of voter turnout numbers as going through natural cycles of varying levels.

Can you imagine our self-serving politicians recognising a legitimacy crisis if they get elected by a tiny number of eligible voters? Nope. It won’t happen even if you think it ought to happen. They love power, and they love power more than they fear moral criticism for having gained power on the basis of weak electoral support.

It therefore seems inescapable to me that the emotional honesty of not voting or spoiling a ballot is less practically rational than making an imperfect choice about who should be running the affairs of your municipality.

Once you have reconciled yourself to the need to reason strategically about your voting choices, you can then let go of the nominal guilt that you’re endorsing parties or candidates who are not a perfect match for you. That’s life.

I bet very few of us get perfect matches in life anyway, whether it be your choice of life partner, work colleagues or even your shrink (assuming you even have the middle-class privilege of being able to bitch and moan about an imperfect shrink).

Of course, on the whole, we South Africans enjoy voting, which is why our voter turnout figures are impressive by international standards. This is true of both our national and our local elections.

But as the romance of a new democracy wears off and disillusionment comes knocking, it might be tempting to fall out of love with the business of voting. And no one knows if that will be the case in these forthcoming elections.

If you're tempted to sleep in on August 3, I suggest you think twice about doing so. You don't want to wake up on August 4 smelling of regret.

* Eusebius McKaiser is the best-selling author of A Bantu In My Bathroom and Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma. His new book - Run, Racist, Run: Journeys Into The Heart Of Racism - is now available nationwide, and online through Amazon.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Media.

THE STAR

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