Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Thu 31st Aug, 2006

Voting - it's not just for christmas

I seem to be getting excellent at getting into arguments about fundamental issues where I take a different tangent to everyone else.

The other day I was talking to a guy at the Woodcraft Guild and the subject of compulsory voting came up. He took what I see as the "ignorance is bliss" argument: that people should be allowed to not vote if they are genuinely not interested in it. (This may be putting his case badly, but I'm sure many people reading this out there - possibly as many as four - will know the argument). It echoes the sentiments of an American and a Russian that I talked to at LCA 2005, where both of them were genuinely puzzled that Australia could actually want to force people to vote. The American said that people who didn't know the issues shouldn't have to vote, and the Russian said that the Russian Government had been forcing people to do lots of things, and they'd finally had enough of it.

To me this is just plain screwy. We live in a representative democracy: we elect representatives to work in the government on our behalf, but fundamentally it is still a government by the people. To opt out is not just saying, "I do not want to have responsibility of voting", it is to say, "I do not want to be represented." To me, not voting implies complete acceptance of whatever the rest of the populace decice is good for you. A person who does not vote has lost the right to say, "But, hey, I didn't want that policy or this law." Because you did not exercise your democratic right to say this at the only time that you really actually get a chance to.

I mentioned this fleeting dialogue to Kate that evening and the conversation went something like this:

Me: "Someone was saying they shouldn't have to vote if they didn't want to."
Kate: "That was a white male speaking, wasn't it."
Me: "Indeed."
Kate: "If he was a black man, or a woman, he would have fought for that right."

Indeed. Women have spent hundreds of years fighting for the right to vote, and for the right to be treated equally, all across the globe. In many countries, Guatemala being a prime example, women are still allowed by law to be maltreated. Aboriginal people only got included in the electoral rolls, and thus had a say in how the country they lived in ran itself and organised its laws pertaining to them in 1962 - err, 1949 - over 150 years after Federation and just under two hundred years after Australia became a British colony and all its inhabitants (nominally) subject to British rule (which included voting, for instance).

How some will throw away the things other people have fought most dearly for.

The other reasoning I found myself thinking of was that our entire legal system is based on the fundamental premise that lack of knowledge of the law is no defence against breaking it. Whether it's trespass, or copyright, or the intricacies of how to fill in your tax return if you're a self-funded film director, you're expected to know the law. For some activities, mostly to do with dangerous activities like driving, you have to pass tests to prove this. For others, like drinking and voting, we restrict people for eighteen years before they get to do this in the hope that they've picked up enough information about the world to know what the problems and dangers are. We don't go out and memorise books of law, but that's because we already have plenty of examples of how to do the right thing and why not to do the wrong thing as we're growing up, and usually 'right thing' and 'wrong thing' correspond (mostly) to the law.

In this light, to say "I don't want to have to learn what the politicians mean" (i.e. and therefore not be required to vote on the grounds of ignorance) is no defence at all. If you don't understand the issues, be prepared to be swayed by whatever stupid rhetoric, lies and so forth the parties are prepared to throw at you. If you don't like this, learn what the issues mean. You have to vote anyway, so make your vote count.

It seems to me also absurd that people in the Linux community should maintain the "I don't want to have to vote" opinion. We are currently fighting a war with the well-financed, honey-tongued and extremely well organised lobby groups from big business, who are more than happy to stomp all over consumer rights in order to protect their interests. This affects Linux directly: any time you play a DVD, or watch a movie encoded with Windows Media, or communicate with a Windows server with Samba, you're using technologies that these big companies are aiming to put a stop to. Many of us don't have the time to write long, well-informed and passionate letters to our members of parliament, who are the only people who can actually change the progress of these bills. But the one thing we all get to do is vote. It's one of the few times where we all get to have a say.

Don't throw this away.

And, if you do, don't ever let the words "I wish the government would..." pass your lips. Likewise, don't say, "Why do they let companies..." or "It should be legal to..." or "My school shouldn't close down" or "They shouldn't be allowed to..." Because you have forfeited your right to any complaint if you did not vote, in my opinion. You display the greatest of all hypocrisies.

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