“Freedom to vote also carries freedom not to, and that can sometimes be our most important weapon.”
I remember being in Sudan the last time the general election was held and getting a slight sense of excitement for the opportunity, that rapidly declined to resignation. A few months following there was a referendum that would split the country into two halves and redraw Africa’s colonial boundaries for the first time. First no change, then a big one.
As expected, both general elections produced sweeping victories for the National Congress Party, who have ruled Sudan for decades. It feels so routine I initially wasn’t going to comment.
This time though pictures circulated of sleeping officials at polling stations, policemen queuing to vote in snaking lines, men trying to encourage people off the street, and the entire voting time-frame was extended by a day due to low turn-out. When you know what to expect, why bother?
When it comes to discussing voter-turnout we often see it framed by the global north-south divide, where in poorer nations ‘not voting’ is allowed to be a radical act. Perhaps, we say, it’s the difference between active apathy (“my vote won’t make a difference due to rigging, therefore I won’t bother.”) and passive apathy (“my vote won’t make a difference because all politicians are the same, so why bother?”). Except it isn’t that clear-cut; low voter turnout due to lack of faith in the system is low voter turnout due to lack of faith in the system regardless of the root cause, even if some root causes do not prevent a free and fair election. Where vote-rigging is common the best way to protest and make an active political choice is to not lend yourself to the charade of freedom. Here in the UK many people feel they cannot determine the differences between politicians, nor if the values they claim to subscribe to will even slightly resemble anything they do. When politics is reduced to a stab in the dark (for example the Lib Dems did not just say in 2010 they would vote against raising tuition fees, but one of the promises in their manifesto was to work towards abolishing them), protest can be a refusal to participate in a charade of choice, even if it is harder to distinguish from apathy.
You have one day in the UK to determine the future of the country, and yet you are left either voting against your worst-case scenario, or live in the fear that an ideological choice you make you will come to regret. Voter registration is low (and with the registration deadline now passed we have a fixed maximum of voters), and on top of that turnout amongst registered voters is low because the system refuses to engage with people by increasing accountability. Yet non-voters themselves are blamed. In Sudan this is not the case, lack of turn-out rightly shines light back on the institutions themselves. The voice of the people in their refusal is more respected.
A few months ago I was completely opposed to those who were actively against not voting in the UK. I still think that this choice allows politicians to ignore large portions of the population and only cater to an increasingly shrinking pool of people who do turn up. In generally free and fair elections spoiling the ballot is preferable because it demonstrates numerically that there is a politically aware population who do not like what is happening, making not casting a vote less likely to be brushed off as laziness. However I can recognise now that this can be impractical, a little soul-sucking, and ultimately shouldn’t have to be done – I was casting the issues of the system and the biases of politicians back onto the public. Patronising people with messages from Nelson Mandela frames voting as if all our problems could be fixed with a simple ‘x’ every five years. The right to vote is certainly hard won but the freedom to vote also carries freedom not to, and that can sometimes be our most important weapon.