Not voting is part of the problem, not the solution

It’s not hard to be controversial in Northern Irish politics, and Alex Kane, a seasoned political analyst, hasn’t been known to mince his words in his journalistic commentary. But his declaration last week that he will not vote in next month’s European and local government election has provoked a particularly strong reaction. I fully respect that Alex’s decision should be a carefully considered personal one, but I believe his decision is highly misjudged.

He justifies not voting by his desire to question the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s governing parties, arguing that when turnout is low, it weakens the parties and strips them of authority and it undermines their claim to speak on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.”

Alex suggests that if turnout falls below 50% in the forthcoming election, the result will trigger alarm bells and perhaps foster some serious institutional reform at Stormont. As pollster Bill White points out, however, this logic is severely flawed: it would be miraculous if turnout was above 50% on 22 May; even anything above 40% isn’t bad in a European poll.

The reason is that elections to councils and the European Parliament are perceived as ‘second-order’ contests. Many people don’t vote because they don’t think of these institutions as having a major impact on their daily lives. In a cost-benefit calculation, many calculate the benefits of voting to be outweighed by the effort required to go to the polling station. It is turnout in ‘first-order’ elections, to the Assembly and Westminster, that legitimacy for those institutions is derived. If Alex wants to send his message that “the Assembly isn’t working, the Executive is dysfunctional, we have farce rather than government, the parties don’t care; and nothing is being allowed to change because the parties at the centre of it all don’t actually want it to change,” then his decision not to vote in May will not serve this purpose.

Instead, his decision will serve another purpose: to help those very parties in the Northern Ireland Executive. Low turnout provides a sigh of relief to parties interested in maintaining the status quo, signalling that mainly those with a durable and strong commitment to a particular political party take part in the election. This is often referred to as a party’s ‘base’. If an established party can simply mobilise its base in a second-order contest, its strategy doesn’t need to worry about reaching new or wavering voters.

On the other hand, for voters who are not strongly committed to a particular political party, second-order contests present a prime opportunity for voters to register a protest through their vote. That is why UKIP is polling so well: not because it will sweep to victory in next year’s general election, or even because voters’ grievances directly relate to their concerns about the European Union, but overwhelmingly because people want to express their frustration with the mainstream Westminster parties in what they see as an otherwise inconsequential election.

The same is true in Northern Ireland: if you want to take a stand against the incumbent parties of government, not to vote is simply to make it easy for them to win councillors or MEPs. They don’t need to persuade you as a frustrated voter; if they assume that you will stay at home, they only need to mobilise people who continue to support them no matter what.

If you want to express your frustration with the parties of government, then why would you want to make an election easy for them? They will be less accountable, not more accountable, by not voting. The five main parties may dominate politics here for now, in an all-inclusive coalition. But in the upcoming contest, there are a total of ten different parties standing, offering a relatively wide range of different views. If you think the Executive ignores left-wing and environmental policy goals, the Green Party may be for you. If you think that Europe is the problem, there’s UKIP. If you think that the Assembly needs to move towards an official opposition based on ‘normal’ politics, NI21 is a logical choice.

In short, there is a range of parties that allow voters to register a protest against the parties of government. If any of these five ‘other’ parties do well, that will sound alarm bells for the parties of government. They won’t lose sleep if turnout is low, as expected.

Another justification used by Alex Kane not to vote is this simple claim: I see no evidence that my vote will make a difference.”

This is a mammoth statement for a political commentator. His argument here is contradictory at best, claiming not to believe that his vote will amount to anything, but yet he bemoans that, “we are more polarised than we were when the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed and further away from genuine power-sharing, a shared future and breaking down us-and-them barriers.” This situation is not merely an accident: it emerged precisely because of voters’ electoral choices and, crucially, the decision by many to stop voting.

The 1998 referendum that saw the Good Friday Agreement approved by a large majority of Northern Irish voters generated a turnout level of 81.1%. By 2011, of course, turnout in the Assembly election had plummeted to about 25% lower – a staggering difference in such a short space of time. One compelling interpretation of the state of politics in Northern Ireland at present is that many of those who voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement have prevented it from working properly in practice. They saw it as important to vote in that ‘landmark’ referendum, but have not facilitated its operation by abstaining from subsequent elections to the Assembly they wanted to see created. The result, not surprisingly, has been politics marked by polarisation, not moderation.

We get what we vote for. If Alex Kane wants to see change in Northern Ireland politics, he would be wise to change his decision not to vote.

About Jamie Pow

Jamie is a PhD student at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University Belfast. His interests include elections, peace building, and making democracy work better. All views expressed are his own, not those of the University.


Also published on Medium.

  • TPAM

    Referendums are an infrequent exception to the general employment of a system that poorly represents the people. Big issues must be directly decided upon by the people. The current system means your vote means something only if some saggy-bagged old man honours his promises.

  • micky mook

    The other huge problem in this country (but certainly not solely in this country) is that of thoughtless voting. Voting as your parents did or as you always have not because of policies but because of principal (even if that principal has long since been diluted by the very people for whom you are voting). I would like to see more education in schools that encourages people to read up on policies and ignore meaningless rhetoric before voting.