The unending dilemma of a democracy: To vote or not to vote?

People in a democracy are often reminded: ‘People died for your right to vote, so you have to vote!’ Should something that presupposes an exercise of choice end up being an obligation, or worse, a coercion? Democracy is championed as the cradle of cherished ideals like freedom and equality but it comes with its own set of shortcomings.

Elections, a fundamental means to establish democratic government, often end up creating win-win scenarios for politicians. If an individual does not get to choose his/her representative as freely as democracy promises, all is definitely not well with it.

In times of “post-truth”, politicians are increasingly using manipulative methods to “persuade” people into voting. Populist rhetoric, assisted by technology, has emerged as a powerful weapon for politicians.

One might ask: why do you want people to vote when they don’t want to? What if they don’t find someone worth voting for? Does a refusal to vote rob them of their worth as good citizens? On the contrary. Democracy cannot be the process of choosing a politician who is ‘the best among the worst’. It cannot be a Hobson’s choice.

Surely, those who vote on the basis of taking the lesser of the two evils on board are in fact undermining the very principle of democracy. It belittles and weakens the power and the worth of people in becoming a part of the political process.

Ultimately, it tends to be an act of self-censorship, making democracy vulnerable to unexpected instabilities. You can’t have democracy and a censorship on freedom together; it would be an oxymoron.

One can have numerous opinions in favour of not voting. I would modestly begin with the ‘abuse of freedom’. Compulsion, even in the name of democracy, remains compulsion, a violation of individual freedom and of democracy itself.

The right of not to vote may be as important as the right to vote. Abstaining from voting may, therefore, be a conscientious act, a resultant of rational and considered reflection, an attempt to draw attention to, say, the lack of choice among mainstream political parties.

Or, perhaps, to express a principled rejection of the political system per se. However, do read it in conjunction with the ‘democratic fatigue syndrome’ which is not caused by the people, the politicians, or the parties; it is caused by the procedure. Democracy may not be the problem; voting may be.

The second issue would be the cosmetic democracy. Obligatory voting addresses the symptoms of the problem but not the source. Making voting compulsory would indisputably increase the electoral turnout, However, it would not address the deeper complications that account for deterioration in civic engagement. Higher turnout levels brought about through compulsion may therefore simply mask some deeper problems.

Third, ‘worthless’ votes. Generally, those who do not vote are either least interested in politics or have little understanding of it. ‘Forcing’ would-be non-voters to vote would therefore simply increase the number of random and unthinking votes that are cast. This is an especially worrying prospect since such ‘worthless’ votes may in some cases determine the outcome of an election.

Another problem with compulsory voting is its potential distortion of the manifestoes adopted by political parties. Instead of focusing on the interests of the electorate, parties may get encouraged to frame policies designed to attract more volatile ‘marginal’ voters, thereby leading to a decline in coherence and an increase in polarization.

Political Theorists have come up with four perceptible models of voting which ‘democracies’ have employed throughout the world: (a) The sociological model (b) The party identification model (c) The dominant ideology model (d) The rational choice model.

(a) Sociological model links voting behavior to group membership, suggesting that an electorate tends to adopt a voting pattern that reflects the economic and social position of the group which they belong to.

(b) The party identification model is based on a sense of psychological attachment that people have to parties. People begin to identify themselves with a party for no reason other than that their ancestors rallied behind that particular party.

(c) The dominant ideology model is purely driven by the ideologies that people adhere to.

Of all the models,

(d) the rational choice model would fetch the prefect rations for a democracy. However, taking the voting behavior of people in India as a frame of reference, one would feel convinced that it has rarely been practised in the recent past, the first three models being almost always predominant. The concretization of the Hindutva ideology and its political personification in the BJP are the most recent examples of (b) and (c).

The idea of NOTA is being increasingly floated by political pundits as a means of registering dissent. However, what it fails to do is to identify a perfect representative who echoes the understanding of the electorate choosing this option.

The questions that should be asked about the current state of democracy are numerous but answers few. However, not only has it been reduced to the process of voting but the use of populist rhetoric has become instrument of eroding the kernel of democracy. There are different places in a democracy that help citizens in shaping the fate of the nation. Should that really be that bizarre, isolated place called the voting booth?

Peerzada Mahboob Ul Haq is student of sPolitical Science, Aligarh Muslim University.