It’s perfectly reasonable to be dissatisfied with the electoral process. We might struggle to find a voter in any jurisdiction who can’t present a case for how things could be better, whether the improvement were to come from revisions to party funding legislation or the accountability of elected officials to those of us who elect them. Grumbling is what we do – all the more since the internet and social media allowed for vastly increased numbers of people to join in and voice their discontent. But for all the grumbling, it’s perhaps worth thinking about – or revisiting – the point of electoral systems in democracies.
On the surface, of course, the point is to reflect the will of the people and to allow for us to elect people to represent us in Parliament or on city councils. (In South Africa, we don’t elect people but instead vote for parties who choose the people – which is yet another thing you could grumble about it you wish.) The dissatisfaction with this process leads some to say we should simply opt out, either through not voting at all or through measures such as spoiling your ballot. Recently, Ronnie Kasrils recommended spoiling your ballot as a way to indicate you believe the ANC has let us down (although more nuanced accounts of his statements to the media indicate that he recommended a vote for a minority party first, and spoiling your ballot only if you find none of those parties palatable).
To make one thing clear: spoiling your ballot is a legitimate choice in a democracy. But it’s the wrong choice, because it misunderstands the point of voting, in that it assumes fealty to a chosen party, where that fealty allows you either to endorse the way they are doing things or simply withhold your support. The right choice is to understand your vote as purely a tactical gambit. Signalling disappointment with a political party isn’t effectively signalled through spoiling a ballot, in that the signal is unclear – there is no way of telling whether you spoilt your ballot because you’re incompetent or because you were protesting the electoral system rather than the party you ostensibly didn’t vote for.
A vote for an opposition party shifts the balance of power, however minutely. Voting for nobody, by contrast, indirectly rewards the incumbent through denying the opposition a chance to govern – especially when dealing with a significant majority such as the one the ANC enjoys in South Africa. A spoilt ballot might well decrease the majority party’s proportion of votes cast, but a vote for an opposition party will decrease it further and alert them to the fact that they cannot take your vote for granted in a far more transparent way.
The tactical element of each person’s vote is of course a matter that can be clarified only by those individuals themselves. For a middle class liberal type like me, living in the Western Cape, a vote for the ANC in the provincial ballot might play a part in alerting the governing party (the DA) that its steadily increasing social conservatism is diametrically opposed to liberal ideas. It doesn’t necessarily matter that the ANC is illiberal – the vote signals that the party that is supposed to be liberal seems to instead be more focused on attracting votes through playing on fears of social decay than on defending its ideological turf. (It’s a separate issue whether the turf is the correct one, or whether the short-term gaining of votes is sensible strategy on their part – I’m simply addressing the voters’ choices and how they might be made.)
On a national level, a vote for the DA might well be the best signal of disaffection with the ANC. But, then again, a vote for a party like the EFF might be more effective in the long run, because both the ANC and the DA are roughly centre to centre-right in economic terms, and the voice that’s missing in a poverty-stricken country like ours is the leftist one. Having a strong EFF presence in Parliament might be just what’s needed to shake the incumbent party from its dogmatic slumber, to paraphrase Hume.
In the next election, you get to make the same choice again. The key thing to remember is that it is a choice, and that you owe nobody your loyalty. If it’s the long-term future of the country you care about, you should vote in a manner that you think best supports a prosperous future – not in a manner that best supports a prosperous future for any particular party.
This article was originally published on Jacques Rousseau website, here is a link: On Kasrils, and spoiling your ballot