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  1. Politics
7 May 2015

Casting your vote may be dull – but the way it adds up is magic

There is a kind of brilliant madness to the idea that the best people to decide the direction of a large country are all of the people that live in it.

By Ian Leslie

Voting in this country is banal. Not many people today are going to the ballot box with their blood pumping and heart pounding. Few will walk out punching the air. In terms of excitement, it is never going to beat storming the Bastille or smashing the system.

But the banality of voting should be cherished. There are people who vote with their hearts pounding, with hearts in mouths. In June, there will be women in Afghanistan who cast their vote knowing that it puts their safety, and the safety of their families, at risk. There, the polling stations will be guarded by men with guns. I cast my vote in the primary school at the end of the street, to the sounds of children playing under a blue suburban sky.

So when you enter your polling station today, check your privilege. Being able to change your rulers by making a mark on a piece of paper is a rare and wonderful thing. Most people in the world don’t get to do it. I don’t know what proportion of people in the course of human history have been able to, but it is undoubtedly miniscule. We are the one per cent.

Electoral democracy is a new and fragile innovation, an experiment. As software developers say, it is still in beta. Until now, most societies until now have been predicated on concepts like the “divine right of kings” and “chain of being”. Most of those who lived in the pre-democratic world would have found the idea of self-government utterly absurd. Some still do. Democracy will never be short of people trying to make it fail.

There is a kind of brilliant madness to the idea that the best people to decide the direction of a large country are all of the people that live in it. Polls which check the knowledge of voters about basic political facts reveal shocking ignorance and misconceptions. We rely on those same people – on us – to take major decisions, on issues of fearsome complexity. Despite this, more and more societies are choosing to rule themselves democratically, and those that do rarely swap it for something else.

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Democracy has weaknesses, for sure: short-termism, a refusal to confront difficult challenges or tell hard truths; nobody in this campaign has attempted a serious conversation about the future of the NHS, for instance. But Churchill’s remark about it being the worst system apart from all the others is the best thing anyone has said about it. I think it is also a good guide to how think about your vote.

The biggest mistake people make when it comes to politics is to imagine that there is such a thing as a perfect choice. Politics is the art of choosing between imperfect options. Democracy is, by its nature, about compromise. That’s why it doesn’t get the blood up, why it often feels pallid and unexciting. I’m voting Labour but I don’t imagine the country’s problems will disappear if they are elected. It is quite possible they will get worse. But just as the best advice about happiness is that you shouldn’t expect to be happy, they best way to think about voting is that you’re electing someone who you will be dissatisfied with. The question then becomes, what kind of dissatisfaction do you want?

In the U.S, a lot of Democrats say they are uninspired by the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. I take that as an encouraging sign of political realism. When people start to imagine that a candidate is perfect, as they did with Barack Obama, they are always sorely disappointed by reality, even when the reality is not bad at all.

There are strong, and now perhaps unanswerable, arguments for reform of the UK’s voting system. But of all the reasons that the current one is inadequate, I’m least persuaded by the complaint that if you live in a safe constituency, your vote is wasted. Like a lot of fallacies, it’s partially true. My vote for Stella Creasy in Walthamstow makes no difference. But that’s not the same as saying it’s wasted.

In almost any popular election, under any system, no individual vote makes a difference. This is why economists say that voting is, strictly speaking, an irrational waste of time and energy (they call this “the paradox of voting”). But the magic is in the adding up. When you cast your vote you’re asserting your individual right to vote and at the same time acknowledging that you are insignificant. Your vote is one among many, and it’s the many who decide.

So if you’ve voted today, congratulations. If you haven’t yet, do try and find the time to walk to that unguarded polling station, to exchange polite words with the volunteers that staff it, to push that nylon curtain aside, to make a mark with that stubby pencil, to fold and drop your slip into the box.

And when you walk outside, you might even permit yourself a discreet punch in the air.

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