Spoiling for a fight?

Why I resisted the temptation to spoil my ballot paper on election day.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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This morning I nearly did something I swore I would never do. I nearly spoiled my ballot paper.

Don’t get me wrong – it wasn’t that I had been thinking of voting. When the election campaign began, I adopted a position of principled non-voting, on the grounds that I did not support any of the parties. Now, as the whole miserable affair grinds to a halt, the cross-party playing of the anti-apathy card has degraded the act of voting so much that I would be reluctant to vote anyway.

Who do they think they are, these people who tell us to vote because otherwise we are self-indulgent middle-class ingrates who don’t get the fact that people fought hard for the right to vote? What do they think voting is about?

So I’m in no doubt about my position on the whole thing. But I was curious. After all, I would love to have a reason to vote – yet the dire state of politics being what it is, this is the second general election since I turned 18 and I have not yet made it into a polling station. And I thought that, if I went along and spoiled my ballot paper, I could at least play at the election thing, and see how it all worked.

In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Halfway to the polling station, I replayed the rows I have had with people over the past four weeks about principled non-voting. Many people have agreed with me that the idea that people are too stupid or lazy (apathetic) to vote is inaccurate and insulting; many have agreed that it is wrong to vote for a party you don’t support. But they have invariably gone on to ask why you don’t spoil your ballot paper, or they have proposed a system where you can cast a vote for ‘none of the above’, or tick a box stating your principled reasons not to vote.

This, I have argued back, just endorses the argument that people don’t vote because they are idle. A spoiled ballot paper means nothing, except for showing that one individual was prepared to take a few minutes out of his or her normal schedule not to vote. Which seems to me like a waste of time – if you’re not going to vote, you might as well spend your time doing something more interesting and constructive than doodling on a ballot paper. Voting once every four years is not hard, and requires little time and energy – my polling station is a school five minutes from my house and on my route to work, and this time you can always use the postal vote.

But still the spoiled ballot brigade don’t get it. They cannot accept that you can act upon a principle without having some tangible outcome – for example, through having scrawled on your ballot paper ‘I REJECT THIS ELECTION AND EVERYTHING IT STANDS FOR’. And this morning, I kind of understood why.

A mate of mine conducted a random poll of 38 early twenty-somethings, to find out what they were doing today. Only seven were going to vote, and, with less than nine hours to go before the polling stations shut, three said they might make a last-minute decision to vote, but weren’t sure yet. Some claimed to have forgotten that today is polling day. The rest were: going home to watch TV (seven); doing paid work (two); childminding (two); finishing coursework (eight); or just doing ‘normal stuff’. My friend, another principled non-voter, said dejectedly, ‘I felt like doing a “get out and vote” speech’.

I sympathise. Because yes, it’s true that not every non-voter makes an active, principled decision not to vote. If it’s not apathy that makes people not vote, it’s equally not ‘antipathy’ – as some commentators have claimed. The hole at the heart of politics today, the thing that makes so many people see it as irrelevant to their lives, does not result today in a wave of politically-motivated anti-election passion. Rather, it means acquiescence to the status quo, where increasing numbers of people do not particularly object to things, just as they do not particularly support things.

This is not apathy – the problem is still with politics, not with people. Yet for the politically passionate among us, it is frustrating, to say the least. And when you don’t vote on election day, you kind of want to draw a line between your politically-active self and those who acquiesce; to say to the world, ‘That’s not me! I’m different!’.

But how bloody pathetic. At best, we’re talking identity politics here – spoiling your ballot paper to claim an identity as a conscientious objector, as opposed to an apathetic scumbag. At worst, we’re talking self-help: that if you don’t have enough courage in your convictions to stay away from the poll without experiencing spasms of self-doubt (‘Maybe I am just too lazy to vote, really’), you spoil your paper as an affirmation of your own self-worth. All of which is a terrible abuse of the democratic right that is your right to vote, and all of which degrades your vote far more than not casting it at all.

So, to the ballot-spoilers among you – look. I know where you’re coming from, and I feel your pain. But if you’re not going to vote, you should have the balls not to vote at all, rather than hiding behind your principled scribbles. And don’t tell me that I refused to spoil my ballot paper just as a cover-up for my innate apathy. Let’s stop squabbling about the best methods of posturing, and talk about something more interesting instead.

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Topics Politics


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