Why Your Vote is Incomplete

'Get your PVC'. 

I see it everywhere; the message of choice for the informed Nigerian is gaining momentum. That it is a 'duty' to vote is one of the most widely held political beliefs in modern democracies.

But today, let us be rebels.

It is worth asking ourselves why it is a duty to vote, because, looking a bit deeper, it turns out that it may not be enough to simply vote. That is too easy. The 'duty to vote', if we are to accept it, must be a duty to vote well. To achieve that, showing up on election day and ticking a box is not enough. Before we vote, we must reflect on the public issues at stake, the political manifestos, and the competence of candidates. If citizens have not done that, perhaps, they should not be voting at all. 

Jason Brennan, a political philosopher at Georgetown University and one of the world's leading experts on democracy and voting, is one of the few voter rebels of our time. He argues that those who vote for unjust policies or politicians are no better and presumably worse than those who do not vote. His point is made even stronger when you realise that if you choose not to vote, you do your neighbour – assuming she voted wisely – a favour because her vote counts more. Voting alone should not be celebrated; the effect of ignorant voters is to crowd out the votes of the knowledgeable.


The Office of the Citizen

Before we proceed, let us revisit our roles as citizens. There may indeed be a specific duty to vote, but, as citizens, we are responsible for promoting the common good of society. Voting has to be more than a political ritual carried out every four years. It is a part of the responsibility of the citizen. Citizens have a responsibility to make society more just, either by voting for just policies or by voting for representatives who will enact them. 

This responsibility exists on citizens because the success of any political structure is made possible by the voluntary participation and involvement of its citizens. If citizens do not take on their civic responsibilities, then they cannot hold the government to account. And if the government is not held to account, it will either capture the state for its own selfish interests or slowly commandeer its disintegration (sound familiar?).

Therefore, when it comes to voting as part of the citizen's responsibilities, it can only be done right when the voter has taken time to reflect on how her vote contributes to the betterment of society or in pursuance of the common good. Anything short of that is lazy political participation.


Next steps

Understandably, many people are too preoccupied with their own lives to have time for 'political affairs'. Ironically, in countries like Nigeria, few things are as significant to the average Joe as the political actors and decision-making processes of our government. To put it simply, your vote is too important for you to cast it blindly. 

So, if a vote in itself is incomplete unless the voter has taken time to educate herself, where does that leave Nigeria, a country still very far from being considered as filled with knowledgeable voters? Granted, there is no clear definition of what a knowledgeable voter is, but this imprecision does not address the core concern. 

Brennan identified a class of voters who come close to ideal voters. These are the voters who 'investigate politics with scientific objectivity, respect opposing points of view, and carefully adjust their opinions to the facts, which they seek out diligently'.

Being truthful, I am not sure such people exist, at least not in Nigeria. Brennan himself cites a study which showed that even people with excellent numeracy skills tend not to draw on them if doing so risks undermining a cherished political belief. Closer to home, knowledgeable Nigerians now look back on their support for President Buhari in the 2015 elections with voter's regret, even though some were sophisticated experts with a good understanding of his particular style and Nigeria's socio-economic terrain.

If their votes matched the choices made by less-knowledgeable Nigerians who simply voted for him on the belief that he was the Messiah, how different are these two sets of people?

As far as outcomes go, they may be similar, but ignorance still has its price. This brilliant piece by the New Yorker points to the work of Scott Althaus which shows that:

"A voter with more knowledge of politics will, on balance, be less eager to go to war, less punitive about crime, more tolerant on social issues, less accepting of government control of the economy, and more willing to accept taxes in order to reduce the federal deficit".

These trends pulled from voter knowledge show the potential effect on governance.

As Nigerians prepare for 2019, consider this a reminder to get more than just your PVC. Voters hold the idea of universal suffrage very dearly without attributing value to the corresponding obligations of a vote. We are left with little choice but to simply let voters vote while praying they vote wisely. In doing so, we pass on the burden of voter education to them.

Therefore, I don't just implore you to vote, but to vote wisely. Only then can you consider your duty done. 


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