Votes Should be Interpreted not Judged

From six thirty on Thursday morning to four thirty on Friday afternoon I was playing a tiny part in helping the wheels of democracy (or what we commonly describe as democracy) turn. I was a poll clerk and then a verification assistant and count assistant for the European and borough elections here in London (though not in my own borough). I’d probably have done this for free but I’ll put my cards on the table and admit that the pay was also pretty decent, even if the long hours and pressure of following regulations were quite exhausting. Nevertheless it was a largely rewarding experience, not least because it allowed me to see first-hand how some candidates can fail to understand the meaning of messages that voters may be trying to send.

Before developing that critical point it is worth dwelling on the good stuff for a moment. My day at the polling station allowed me to meet hundreds of people who shared a desire to, in some small way, express their views and influence who it is that represents them. It was clear that there were a range of motivations at work, from a sense of civic duty to a desire to express anger or discontent by way of a genuine identification with one (or more) of the parties. A sizeable proportion of the people who came to vote clearly appreciated the opportunity to do so and that, in itself, is a good thing. It resulted in a friendly and familiar atmosphere in the polling station, and a sense of mutual respect between the staff and voters that was a pleasure to be part of. There were two particular high points in the day, the first of which was seeing three generations of the same family come in to vote together, with the grandchildren helping their grandparent read the ballot paper and cast their vote. The second was meeting an independent candidate who seemed genuinely interested in representing the people in their area and consequently introduced fresh element to the election based on personal connections rather than party alignment (although, unfortunately, the they were not elected).

The glaring iniquities of the predominant electoral system in the UK, and the mathematical meaninglessness of casting a single vote in any electorate of tens of thousands or more do not undermine those positives. The coming together of people to express their opinions and influence the world around them has value in and of itself even if the system through which they do it is flawed. However, this isn’t a post about those flaws but about one of their consequences; the failure of some of the elected to even try to understand the messages that they are being sent by the electorate.

As a counting assistant I was face-to-face with candidates as they kept a rough tally of the emerging results. This gave me the chance to hear what some of them were thinking as they weighed up the likelihood of their victory or loss. Amongst all the thoughts I heard being verbalised the most striking was the idea that the electorate don’t know what they’re doing. As I counted out ballot papers for the local borough elections, marked with between one and three crosses (because there were three council positions up for election in each ward), there was a real sense of bewilderment that voters hadn’t just cast their three votes as a block for one of the main parties. More than this, there was an apparent feeling amongst some of the candidates that people who had split their votes were somehow in the wrong. I found this small-minded and borderline offensive.

It is not the job of candidates in an election to judge the way that constituents choose to vote, but to try and interpret the message that is being conveyed to them. There was no apparent effort to explain split votes other than to assume that the electorate is flawed in some way. I’m not trying to claim that every vote cast is necessarily a well-informed and rounded attempt to convey a considered message to candidates. However, to simply dismiss votes that don’t conform to your particular expectations as misguided is a much worse generalisation. There are lots of possible explanations for the ways that people vote if only candidates would make the effort to consider them. I’ll try to outline a few of those reasons here, bearing in mind that I’m sure there are more than the ones I can think of:

–       First, people vote emotionally; they see things that they like and dislike, have reactions to them, and let those reactions inform who they select in the ballot. The emotional reactions might be to a particular policy at local or national level, to a particular party or party figure at local or national level, or to a particular candidate at local level. Maybe they identify with a particular party and like some of its policies at the national level but also think that another party’s candidate at local level is a nice person who would be a decent representative. Maybe they’re angry about one thing in particular and want to express that at the same time as re-electing a particular hard-working councillor who they like. These, and numerous other combinations of vote expressing different emotions, are no less valid than any other vote; it’s perfectly legitimate to endorse people you like even if they’re not from the party you usually support, or to vote against the party that you usually endorse because they’ve done something you dislike. Mixing these emotional reactions and splitting your vote as a consequence is not flawed, it makes sense.

–       Second, people vote for balance; they see things they like about each of the parties and decide that they’d like some part of all those benefits. This may be based on underlying principles that they associate with each of the parties or on some desire to see the parties working together, sharing ideas, and compromising. Alternatively, they might not trust any of the parties and want to see them counterbalancing each other. This may be hard for candidates to stomach but it is not an expression of foolishness by the electorate.

–       Third, voters may be disillusioned with the three main parties and not want to support any of them, which could leave them with limited options on a ballot paper. So, someone who votes for UKIP, the Greens, and an independent candidate could simply be saying that they don’t like the Conservatives, Labour, or the Liberal Democrats. Again, this splitting of the votes is not based on being misguided but on a desire to express dissatisfaction.

–       Fourth, they may wish to express consistency across ballots; perhaps they endorsed UKIP in the European elections and then saw that they also had a candidate at local level. Thus, they vote UKIP with one vote at local level and give their other two votes to the party that they usually support.

–       Fifth, they only turned up to vote for one particular candidate; not using their other two votes in this instance is not error on their part, rather it demonstrates that only one candidate did enough work to earn their vote. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the other candidates weren’t very good, perhaps just that no information about them got through to the voter. However, it’s entirely reasonable for a voter not to endorse someone who they know nothing about.

–       Sixth, they really are just choosing randomly (or close to randomly), but even this isn’t an indictment because it may suggest a level of disengagement from the electoral process as it stands. It could indicate that as far as the voter is concerned it makes no real difference who’s in power, which is a worthwhile message to send. Again, this might not be easy for candidates to stomach because they spend their time in politics focussing on the things that set them apart from each other, but this doesn’t rule out the possibility that they appear similar to members of the electorate.

Now I’m obviously aware that all of the above is only one part of the picture. There probably are voters who aren’t making any particular statement with their vote (or lack of vote) and who are disengaged from or uninformed about the political system at local or European (not-to-mention national) level. However, crucially, these are not signs of foolishness but, arguably, reflections of a flawed system that doesn’t attract or facilitate engagement or the desire to be informed amongst a significant proportion of the population. Those people aren’t lesser individuals for their disengagement or lack of information, and they have just as much right to express their views, as and when they want, and how they want.

So, the upshot of the above is that there are numerous reasons for people to vote the ways that they do. Indeed, it’s even more complex than that; any number of the explanations outlined above (along with others that I haven’t thought of) can work in combination to lead to mixed messages that are difficult to interpret. Those are not invalid messages though; they are still an expression of some sentiment or reasoning.

The problem is not the complexity of motivations that voters may have for their choices but the bluntness of the tool that they must use to express themselves. Voting is a terrible way to try and tell anyone anything; between one and three marks on a ballot paper that could be made in that order for numerous combinations of reasons. Of course, with an electorate of tens of thousands or more it is difficult (though not impossible) to envisage other ways of getting the input of those people all at once. We could have a better voting system or more referendums (with a single proposition and only yes or no options, meaning that although the motivations remain hidden it would be clear what the ultimate intent of a vote either way is) but these wouldn’t ultimately remove the difficulty of figuring why a voter made the marks that they did on a ballot paper. This may point to other ways of making democratic decisions, based on more localised and deliberative democracy but that is a topic for another time.

The key point here is that candidates who see combinations of votes on ballot papers that are difficult to understand should be aggrieved with the mode of communication rather than with the voters. It takes no more (or less) effort or thought to give all three of your local election votes to one party than it does to draw on the kinds of motivations that I’ve outlined above. Every vote has value, whether or not it conforms to the expectations of candidates. The fact that they don’t want or can’t be bothered to try and figure out what voters are attempting to tell them says more about the candidates than the electorate. It certainly is frustrating to receive messages that you can’t easily decipher, but if the problem is the means by which the message has been sent to you, then you shouldn’t judge or get annoyed with the person sending it. In the case of voting, that judgement and annoyance on the part of candidates can only feed the sense that there is a gap between the elected and the electorate, which is no good thing for democracy (however it is envisaged).


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