Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The meaning of a vote

My vote is very nearly worthless. So is yours. And that’s a good thing.

The idea that a single person is likely to ‘make a difference’ in an election would be a seductive myth if it werent so obviously false, because the whole point of democracy is that one person doesn’t make much difference. If you want power in one person’s hands, you want a dictatorship.

I was reminded of this by Michael Regnier, who writes:

voting in a General Election is not a powerful act. When I go to put an X on the ballot paper, it is not with a feeling of political influence coursing through my fingers and that stubby little pencil, it is more with a feeling like the one you get when you look at the picture made famous by Carl Sagan – the pale blue dot that is Earth, suspended in a sunbeam somewhere in the universe. It’s famously humbling, but also rather thrilling, in a way, to be so insignificant!

I think there is beauty in this. There’s something wonderful about the fact that on one day, all the power of the state is smashed into millions of tiny pieces and given back to its rightful owners. We each then take our own tiny piece of power and put them together in the way we think best.

The result can be disappointing – an awkward structure, designed by millions of people with different priorities and different ideas. And once it’s built, chances are that it’ll function in a way that no individual would have ideally wanted.

But democracy has to be about more than elections. The way to make an election as disappointing as possible is to treat it as an isolated act of individual choice. 

James Kirkup has a nice analogy:

democracy isn't a restaurant where every diner gets to order a la carte. It's a family where there's a row about what's for dinner, then one meal gets cooked for everyone: no one gets exactly what they want and everyone is a bit unhappy but eats it anyway.

A vote may be individual but an election is collective. The better the conversation we have before the decision, the better that decision will be. As Michael says:

to actually wield real democratic power, you must do more than cast a vote each time you are asked: you have to be active, engage with other voters, listen and argue with them, and perhaps compromise a little.

The decision is collective. We’re not just making it each for ourselves; we’re making it for each other.

Tomorrow I’ll do my bit, my tiny little bit. It won’t mean much from a national point of view, but it’ll mean a lot to me to be part of something big.