Don't tell me non-voters can't complain! -

Don’t tell me non-voters can’t complain!

Prof. Pettigrew on why he’d rather not vote


Parliament Buildings aurinkosanoo/Flickr

It’s democracy week, and that means that democracy enthusiasts have revved up for that heady mix of hand-wringing, admonishment, and cheerleading that characterizes all such events.

Read this next: political scientist Max Cameron on why there aren’t more good people in politics.

So forgive me for saying so, but the only thing I’m more sick of than being told how important it is that I vote, is voting.  People like me tend to remain unheard at times like this, so I’m weighing in on behalf of those who don’t vote or would rather not vote, and responding to the well-meant clichés that we hear so much of these days.

Cliché 1. If you don’t vote, you don’t have any right to complain.

Nonsense. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees my right to complain and access to charter rights is not dependent on whether one voted or not.

Okay, maybe I’m being too literal here. Perhaps what is meant is that if you want political leaders you like, then vote for them, otherwise you’re stuck with whatever morons get elected. But why should I have to participate in the selection process just to avoid forfeiting my expectation for competence and integrity?

I don’t vote for judges, but I expect them to do their jobs well. Ditto for police and a host of other public officials. Do I have to join the PTA or resign myself to bad teachers?

I do my job to the best of my ability because I know it matters and I want to contribute. Can’t I expect the same of legislators?

By the way, cliché 1 implies that non-citizens in Canada have no right to complain. Shame!

Cliché 2. If you think all parties are the same, you aren’t paying attention.

In fact, I have been paying attention. It’s paying attention that’s made me so pessimistic. I read the news every single day, and I never see anything going on in government that’s worthy of the leaders of a great democracy.

All of the arguments I see are over minutia of economic policy. How many jobs? Which taxes on which people? This is not leadership. It’s management.

Still worse, pay attention for a while and you will see that none of these policy choices seem to come out of a genuine vision of how a civilized country should function. It’s all a matter of polling, and branding, and demographics. It’s name calling, and scandal mongering and positioning, and pandering.

They may all clothe themselves in different sheeps’ clothing, but they’re all the same wolf underneath.

Cliché 3. If you don’t vote, you aren’t doing your civic duty.

It’s been said that the worst slave owners were the ones who treated their slaves well, because they made it easier for people to excuse a bad system. In the same way, the worst thing we can do for our democracy at this stage may well be to participate in it.

Our outdated first-past-the-post system is a joke. Just ask Quebec voters who are now stuck with a separatist government despite the fact that fewer than a third of duteous citizens voted for the PQ. Modest efforts at reform have been made, but so far, the public has been too conservative to care or simply unwilling or unable to understand even a simple reform like a mixed-member proportional parliament.

I do believe in civic duty. And I think that a vote is sacred. So sacred, in fact, that I don’t want to waste it on today’s politicians or yesterday’s system.

Give me politicians worth voting for, and a system worth voting in, and I’ll vote. Until then, stop looking down your nose at those of use who are holding ours.

Todd Pettigrew teaches English at Cape Breton University. Have a comment? Share it below.


Don’t tell me non-voters can’t complain!

  1. You’ve supported your points, Tom, except in one way. Your answer to Cliché 2 indicates that you haven’t been paying attention to Elizabeth May and the Green Party (or else for some reason you don’t include them among “all parties”, even though they’re on your ballot). You’d be hard pressed to find “name calling, and scandal mongering and positioning, and pandering” there. Visit GreenParty(dot)ca for a vision on how a civilized country should function. In fact, it’s even helpfully named Vision Green. What’s more, the Green Party has always been committed to precisely the kind of electoral reform you call for in response to Cliché 3.

    • Erich, if you look a little closer at the Green Party website, you’ll see that Todd Pettigrew ran in Nova Scotia for the Green Party in 2006 and in 2009

  2. Todd Pettigrew, all good points and everyone can see your point, it is well made…

    Except for one thing: Despite all your arguments, you didn’t address one simple fact: Less than 8000 votes around Canada gave the Cons their majority. 8000 of you pessimistic, too-outraged-to-vote folks resulted in a majority government.

    They split the vote with our horrible system. Then they split those that care into the “I vote because it might make a difference” and “I don’t vote because I am a rebel.” Maybe you should stop drinking water because the water systems aren’t perfect, or stop eating because you can’t find the food you really wanted.

    If you don’t vote, you are a part of the problem, whether you want to admit it or not, and you should be ashamed as a Political Science teacher.

    How embarrassing to hear from someone that is supposed to be a leader in our post secondary education system.

    Fight for proportional representation, fight for what you want… Being a passivist can be a good thing. Being a passivist while a something terrible is happening right in front of you, that you have the ability to stop by just taking a few minutes out of your day… Well, that is just sick.

    • I love a good, intelligent discussion. I love it even when it seems as though some of the participants are arguing at cross-purposes. But what drives me absolutely up the wall is when someone uses words that he doesn’t know how to spell correctly. What the heck is “passivist?” Unless the intent was to coin a new word, I’m going to assume what is meant is pacifist – “a person who believes that war and violence are unjustifiable.” If one doesn’t use spelling and grammar properly in his statements, how can he expect to be taken seriously?

      • Sorry rose, you must try harder. “Passivist” is in many dictionaries – you should have looked it up pre-rant.

  3. Todd,
    Very good points, and since you are looking for a politician worth voting for, put up or shut up – run yourself and change the system.

    • A Google search reveals that Todd Pettigrew has run. In 2006 and 2009 he ran in the Nova Scotia Provincial Election as the Green Party Candidate for Glace Bay.

      • It’s true. I did run twice for the provincial Greens in Nova Scotia. In fact, I was once quite involved in the NS Green Party. Sadly, those experiences only hastened my journey towards my current pessimistic position.

        I will also freely concede, that of the federal leaders and parties, Elizabeth May and the Greens are, in my humble opinion, the least objectionable.

  4. Don’t blame the voters too much for not knowing about alternative electoral systems. Both federal and provincial governments have worked hard to keep information from being too useful or too informative. A couple of Ontario elections ago, when there was a referendum to change the electoral system here, the literature that was sent out was brief and confusing. You had to be aware of the fact that you had to write to Elections Ontario to get the full information booklet. At some point, the Liberals also pulled all of the funding for that literature.

  5. Reading the news every day doesn’t make you informed about what is going on in government. It informs you of the news that the newspapers think will sell papers. The kind of stuff you are looking for in politicians isn’t exciting… but it’s there. We just don’t find out about because scandals sell more papers.

  6. I once asked Jack Layton about all the apparent animosity, and he told me that behind closed doors and out of the cameras, for the most part, politicians work hard together to try to govern the country effectively. I was surprised.

    But I definitely understand where you’re coming from. Voting sometimes seems like such a pointless exercise, especially in FPTP in staunch ridings. If that’s your problem, I’d encourage you to vote for the candidate (or party) that pledges to try to change the electoral system. Both Greens and NDP have voiced this commitment.

  7. Couldn’t disagree more. The alternatives in the elections generally do suck. I’d say my votes in the last federal and provincial elections were for individuals and parties that I find detestable. However, i feel good that I voted against a party with a history of creating poverty stricken socialist utopias and another full of libertarians and social conservatives.

  8. The public has been too conservative to care or simply unwilling or unable to understand even a simple reform like a mixed-member proportional parliament? Ontario voters outside Toronto had another problem in the 2007 referendum. As Prof. Henry Milner wrote just after the referendum “opponents hammered away on the claim that there would be 39 MPPs beholden to party headquarters instead of voters. . . in a short campaign, this image of unrepresentative party hacks from Toronto getting in through the back door was fatal. Had the assembly proposed the alternative MMP method – of having the 39 places filled through regional lists – the proposal would have been less vulnerable to this sort of attack.”

  9. There are really two issues here:

    1) Do non-voters have the right to complain?
    2) Are non-voters unwise to abdicate their right to vote?

    Prof. Pettigrew makes a compelling case in addressing the first question (and he might have added that non-voters have every right to complain that there is no-one worth voting for), but he fails to really engage with the second question, fails to address the obvious rebuttal that there is always some difference between the candidates that makes it worthwhile to cast a vote (even if you regret it later).

    Still, Todd is right to make proportional representation an issue and the Quebec statistic is indeed alarming (though it is really an argument for voting, not for not voting).

    One niggle: “minutia” should be “minutiae” (first declension, not the third), but this is probably just a typo, since Professors of Pettigrew’s pedigree do not usually make mistakes of this kind.

  10. To expect the “democratic” system we have to change without showing up to vote is pure ignorance of the very nature of what a democracy is. Poor argument in my opinion here.

  11. Does anybody believe that the best products are those advertised in the mass media? That’s not necessarily true for consumer goods. Why should it be true for politicians?

    We should take the time to search for alternative candidates.

    It’s satisfying to deny consent to the existing system by voting that way, and that’s a bonus reason to do this.

    I hate it when people dismiss a candidate early in the election cycle by saying “he can’t win”. We’re supposed to vote according to our beliefs. We are not supposed to look at who other people support, and on that basis join in to support one of those candidates. This isn’t a high school popularity contest where we’re scared of not being in the “in group”.

    Some of us are not content to accept only candidates whom the influential people (whoever they are) say have a chance, nor to abandon those who allegedly have no chance. Some of us will not accept the usual kind of candidates who are presumed (so early in the campaign) by the corporate media to have the best chance of winning. ANY candidate has a chance of winning the Presidency if enough of we voters choose that person. The people we see on TV say who can win, but really WE decide.

    But if no acceptable candidate is chosen by any major party, my voting strategy requires choosing minor party people. Other parties’ candidates still appear on ballots. It does not matter which candidate, because that candidate will not win the election this time around. It’s OK to vote for a goofball or weirdo. I would rather vote for a random minor party candidate I don’t believe in than give consent to my abuse by voting for a bought candidate.

    If more people start voting for those minor party weirdos you see on ballots, it becomes more likely that sensible independent candidates will emerge in various elections; actually, I’ve read plenty of discussion in the news about that happening recently, because voters are so dissatisfied with the usual class of candidates. We can vote for those people. As a nice bonus, this will pressure the main political parties to adapt to voter preferences more than they would like.

    That minor party strategy has a risk of splitting the liberal vote between two candidates (as happened with Ralph Nader in the USA) or the conservative vote between two candidates (as happened with Ross Perot in the USA). The best outsider candidate would be a non-weird centrist who can steal votes equally from both sides.