As India votes in its 17th Lok Sabha, and maybe one of the most important ones in recent history, it is a good time to reflect on the idea of voting and to discuss some of the essential questions and narratives on the tool of voting which we take for granted.
Voting, in the public imagination, is a process where every “moral” citizen should act to be involved in the democratic discourse. It is a tool which treats all citizens as equal — one citizen, one vote. These ideas are taken as default by citizens as it gives them a reason to be part of the voting process, nevertheless considering that the marginal utility or the impact of one voter in a large election like India is next to negligible. A study showed that voters have a probability of 1 in 100 million to have a significant impact on the outcome of an election. It is not surprising that many people like Jason Brennan, a philosopher at Georgetown University, argues that with such reality, it might be irrational for a voter to vote.
“Basically, people just think their vote makes a difference, and have this mistaken belief even though statistically it’s not the case,” Melissa Acevedo.
Consider the act of voting where people queue and spend a considerable amount of time to vote. A voter could have used that time in any other way which many people argue can be more productive. However, people still go out and vote, and considering the statistics from Indian elections, the voter turn out has been increasing steadily over the years.
So why do people still vote, even though, it does not have any impact individually and consumes a lot of time? The answer lies in the behaviour understanding of people, where it might be that we are motivated to vote because everyone else around us does it, or we want to “fit” in with our social environment. Especially, when voting has become a tool of a “moral” citizen and consequently judged if citizens don’t exercise this right. There is also the theory of altruism where people who vote are less self-interested than people who do not vote. This is quite possible as voting takes a considerable amount of effort. However, people might also be motivated to vote because they want their political party to win. This tendency leads to tribalism in many aspects where there is a comparison of “us” vs “them” (our party vs their party) type of discourse which can lead to bad politics.
So we are still not sure why people exactly vote, but we know that people do not consider the irrational to vote argument or the negligible marginal utility of their vote. Now, how should we vote? What criteria and ideas should a voter contemplate? The first thing is to differentiate what the individual personal beliefs are to what is good for the nation, community, minorities, personal freedom etc. This can help in removing individual biases.
“The purpose of voting is not to express your fidelity to a worldview. It’s not to wave a flag or paint your face in team colors; it’s to produce outcomes,” Jason Brennan
A utilitarian perspective can be used as a rule of thumb to navigate who to vote for — the candidate who will have the most significant positive impact on a great number of people in the country. This is a more generalised tool but easy to navigate for voters for their judgment.
In addition, a well-informed voter is also a key for a better outcome of the voting process. The voter needs to understand some basic idea of what each candidate promises in terms of policy-making and how does it impact the country as a whole, rather than her own self-interest beliefs. Otherwise, it could have consequences for a country and even for the individual as it could lead to elect corrupt politicians who act on policies which can be harmful for everyone. Because of the responsibility in hand, some people, like Brennan, doubt the ability of all the voters to make well-informed decisions. He has advocated for voting only by people who are well informed and are aware of their decisions. The argument is supported with the idea that just as a well-trained judge above a certain threshold can pass judgments and review laws in a country, the same should be applied to voters who elect representatives. This argument is nothing unusual as even J.S. Mill advocated for more votes for people above a particular intellect. Because of the reservation about the ability of all voters to make the correct decision, there has been an argument for epistocracy — ruled by the intellects.
For political egalitarians, the argument of allowing votes to only certain people is ethically problematic as it goes against the idea of equal citizenship. Also, historically, we have seen such arguments give way for voter suppression, especially for minorities. The argument also leads to practical problems as how to frame a methodology of giving more or only votes to certain people. However, such arguments should not be dismissed plainly because of its inegalitarian nature as it does point to a problem of how democracy can give rise to significant consequences in a country. Through the act of vote, citizens can legitimise the actions of their representativeness which can be bad policies, unjust laws, unnecessary wars, minority suppression etc.
“A people that elect corrupt politicians, imposters, thieves and traitors are not victims… but accomplices” George Orwell
Thus, voting should be performed with its due contemplation and healthy deliberation. The significance of one voter, one vote is vital to protect as it treats all citizens equal which is intrinsically beneficial even though there might be consequences.
However, voting is not only about the voter or the right to exercise her vote, but it is also about what kind of candidates are there in an election.
“I went to vote once, but I got too scared. I couldn’t decide whom to vote for.” Andy Warhol
Lack of reasonable or good candidates can demotivate the electorate and make them not vote. The worse can be that they vote and legitimise bad candidates which can be disastrous for a country. So voting as a standalone tool is not helpful if what we select does not help anyone because without good options, are citizens really voting?
Voting as a democratic tool plays an essential role in India as all citizens are given an equal chance to represent their voice and maybe the only voice for some. Unfortunately, voting and elections all around the world (including India) has become more about spectatorship and innate consumerist tendency (buying what the candidates are selling as their brand). The voter is separated from the critical and complex issues and is instead turned to generalised ideas and tribal attitudes — a hyper normalisation. On the other hand, elections as a tool should not be romanticised because its sole existence does not mean anything as we can legitimise bad candidates through our vote. And we have to keep in mind that it is only one crucial part of the democratic functioning of a country. Our role as citizens is not only to take part in the voting process but active involvement in the whole deliberation and operation of our democratic institutions. Otherwise, we will lose the essence of democracy and stick to the illusion of voting.
Divanshu Sethi is writer/editor for Catharsis Magazine.