As electoral turnout has plummeted to new depths in recent years, it has become increasingly common to hear people say that they do not vote.
But it is worth pondering yesterday’s News Letter column by Alex Kane in which he stated that he will not vote and argued that if less than half the electorate votes on May 22 it would be “a good thing”.
When a political animal like Alex Kane who has lived and breathed politics all his adult life states publicly that he will not be exercising his franchise, it shows the level of frustration with local politics.
But while Alex, as a good columnist, has stimulated debate (even before the piece went up on the News Letter website yesterday morning, there was an 800-word response on the Slugger O’Toole blog), I fundamentally disagree with his belief that not voting is likely to create a better Northern Ireland.
There is scant evidence that ignoring an election will transform politics — electoral turnout in the US is often around 40 per cent. This has not triggered revolution.
Even if a low turnout did cause radical change in Northern Ireland, who is to say that it won’t be violent change?
As a political correspondent, it is not my role to tell people who to vote for, but I have no hesitation in urging people to use their vote.
Watching politicians, it is obvious that fear of the ballot box acts as a check on power.
Even in a politician of noble intent, the fear of being removed from power can halt unpopular policies and force dramatic U-turns. It might be an issue such as the closure of care homes for the elderly or levels of tax (in Northern Ireland, through rates) or more serious abuses of power such as the squander of public money or petty corruption.
Politics is not an abstract concept; it impacts on most areas of our lives. The identity and motivations of those who take decisions matter.
Recently I heard a Stormont minister argue privately that non-voting could be interpreted as apathy arising from contentment, as evidenced in many western democracies over recent decades.
That is because there is no distinction — nor can any be made — between those who out of laziness waste their vote or those who do so out of anger or disillusionment.
It is only voters who actively go to a polling station and spoil their ballot in person who are unquestionably showing disillusionment.
If the number of spoilt ballots soared, particularly after a campaign for such an outcome, it would, unlike a gradually falling turnout, cause genuine concern for the Government because it would demonstrate a politically engaged public which has put thought and effort into a political protest.
Yet even spoiling a ballot is not using the electoral franchise to its fullest. For even if all the candidates in a voter’s area are believed by the voter to be variously unsuitable for office, generally there will be at least one candidate who the voter disagrees with intensely and therefore wishes to keep out. In such a scenario, pragmatically voting for the ‘least worst option’ at least gives that voter a say in which of the several poor candidates wins.
The democratic process can easily lose the revolutionary lustre it had for our forebears. To us, those on the ballot paper next month may seem similar. But the variety would be mind-boggling to a Victorian voter, or to a Chinese citizen today — let alone a resident of Zimbabwe or North Korea.