Why vote? No point for most voters

9:00 am - April 7th 2010

by MatGB    

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Assertion: Turnout is affected by the likelihood your vote will make a difference and the amount of campaigning the parties are doing in the area.

In areas that are considered to be “safe”, a) voters are less likely to be interested and b) parties are less likely to run competetive campaigns, targetting resources and activists on marginal seats they may gain or lose.
Electoral Reform Society: Election already over in nearly 400 seats:

The Society has listed 382 seats which are ‘Super Safe’ in that they will not change hands even with a landslide on any conceivable scale. The Society points out, however, that there are many more seats where the outcome is a very safe bet, even if an upset is not beyond probability.

It is my belief that turnout is likely to go up, overall, in this election as it’s the first election since 1992 where the overall result is not a foregone conclusion.

But for residents of 382 seats out of 650, the local result is already a foregone conclusion. There’s a spreadsheet on the site to download; if you live in one of the seats listed, and you’re considering not voting, make sure you’re registered to vote. Go to the polling station.

Don’t put an X in the box.

Write “No Safe Seats; make my vote count” on the ballot paper.

Why should you do this? Because at an election, the returning officer must get the agreement of a representative of each candidate before a ballot can be rejected. Your already selected future MP will get to know how frustrated you are.

Prediction: after the election, if it’s as close as it is now, a large number of Conservatives will complain that they were robbed and that Labour got more seats than they deserved, or words to that effect; you already see this with the “we won the votes in England” meme.

They will, of course, completely ignore that the Lib Dems and Greens barely scraped the number of seats they deserve. What they don’t take into account is that the ‘safe’ Labour seats are very very safe.

Turnout is incredibly low in many of them; that doesn’t necessarily indicate disaffection, it just indicates that there’s no point in going to the polling station when you know the MPs won already. Labour seats see a much stronger falloff in turnout than Conservative seats, Lib Dem seats are in the middle.

The Conservative party says they like the voting system as is, rotten boroughs, safe seats, differential turnout and all.

It’s a damn shame that they’ve never bothered to try and understand it.

crossposted from my personal journal

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About the author
Mat Bowles is an occasional contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He's mostly a house-husband working part-time at a local school, and is based in Calderdale, Yorkshire. A member of the Liberal Democrats, he is 35 and lives with Jennie Rigg. His general interest blog is currently hosted on Dreamwidth and his old political blog is at Not Little England.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Elections2010 ,Our democracy

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Reader comments

Or you could vote for a party committed to meaningful electoral reform… the way I see it, the greater the vote share taken by LD, Green, etc, the bigger the political pressure becomes to sort out the voting system, since parliament will become more and more obviously unrepresentative.

In deepest, darkest blue Sussex where I live, the seat can certainly be described as a safe Tory one, despite the fact that the sitting MP never gets anywhere near 50% of the vote.

It WOULD however be possible for Labour and the LD’s to deprive thee Tories of the seat if Labour declined to stand. If enough whack jobs vote UKIP, it could just make our votes count for the first time!

I generally agree with the argument, but two thoughts:

1. I bet if the Electoral Reform Society had done a similar list in 2005, they would have included, say, Manchester Withington on the safe seat list – some of those “safe seats” will end up changing hands on larger than average swings.

2. I think that actually the national vote shares will end up mattering more than ever at this election, because of increased likelihood of a hung parliament compared to recent elections.

There will be a big difference in terms of who forms the next government if the Tories get 1 fewer seat than Labour but 5% more of the vote, compared to if they get 1 fewer seat than Labour, but are level on votes. So every vote will matter, at least to that extent.

n.b. also that the problems of politicians just having to appeal to party members and getting elected regardless of what the people vote is, if anything, a much bigger feature of the German electoral system than ours.

Under any system your individual vote is unlikely to make a difference.

When you talk about safe seats you are not talking about seats where your vote won’t change the result. That is highly unlikely to be the case even in the marginals.

What you are talking about is seats where the result is predictable. If you want to complain that it is unfair then you need to explain why a predictable result is unfair. Or to be more precise, you need to explain why people are wrong to vote in a predictable way.

An alternative system, one that is more complex, opaque or less obviously responsive to votes cast might make a result less predictable. However, it is hard to see why a system with those properties would also be considered fairer. Predictable results are a side-effect of a clear, open and democratic electoral system, not an injustice inflicted on those whose votes happen to be predictable. The existence of safe seats is a result of transparency, not of unfairness.

Exactly. How I vote will make absolutely no difference whatsoever to the outcome. If I vote, all I’m doing is legitimising an utterly undemocratic process.

I will vote, because I’m an optimist and in my dreams I hope that enough people will see through my useless and corrupt MP. But you can’t really argue with someone who decides not to. Let’s just stop pretending that we live in a democratic system.

I am in a safe (Con) seat, Cities of London and Westminster, and will consider what you have said.

Interesting that “spoiled” papers have to be shown to the candidates’ reps – though I’m not sure that candidiates will be told unless there are hundreds…


Certainly candidates will not be told – their agents will look at the spoiled ballot paper, laugh at the more unusual comments and think nothing more of it.

You’re right, maybe the candidate would be told if there were hundreds of them, but if you can mobilise that kind of response you can probably genuinely build an alternative in whichever seat you live in over the period of two or three elections.

8. Mike Killingworth

It’s perhaps worth repeating a couple of points I tend to make every time this issue surfaces here.

First, it can be argued that voting is a “citizen duty” like paying taxes and jury service. The reason that it takes more votes to elect a Tory MP than a Labour one is that this notion is more firmly embedded amongst Tories than Labour supporters: your Sussex Tory will turn out even in the foullest weather and the safest seat, while Labour supporters tend to be “instrumental” and so turn-out in Labour strongholds is low.

Second, STV does not abolish safe seats. Typically, only the last seat in any multi-member constituency is in play, and since the whole point of STV is to vote for who you want rather than who you want to keep out, you may well not feel any more empowered than under FPTP. This is before we get to the increased possibility of gerrymandering. Wasn’t it said of Fianna Fail that they drew the boundaries of the Irish constituencies so that they won where they were strong and drew where they were weak?

9. Golden Gordon

Most of us vote for negative reasons.
Personally I will vote Labour, although I would love a Lib lab coalition government with Cable as chancellor and labour to take on board the Liberal Dems views on civil liberties.
The real reason I will be voting Labour is that I cannot stand Nick Cohen and Martin Bright and to see their smug right wing faces beam when Cameron gets elected will be to much and I am afraid it will make my stomach churn

Tim F @7:

My favourite spoil from last year’s locals/Euros was: ‘Prison is too good for the lot of you.’ Written in purple pen, not the pencil, for added venom. At least s/he took the time to express her/himself.

Generally, there are two other main pragmatic reasons that spring to mind why voting remains worthwhile even in safe seats, without even getting into the whole ‘civic duty’ area.

First, there is the candidate of your chosen party. A typical scenario is still for young up-and-comers to fight a hopeless cause and then look to be selected in a more winnable one next time around. Less typically but perhaps more laudably, a losing election can be a springboard for a bigger push next time, or in other elections e.g. back at local level. If you think this person is worth voting for generally, then a vote at a losing election contributes to her/his general ‘stock’ for the future; increasing a losing vote considerably play well at future selections,and in providing that vote you’re doing your chosen party a favour. Of course, if you think the candidate chosen by your preferred party is an arsehole, then I accept the converse may apply.

Second, all main parties now have a ‘marked regsiter’ post-election and that is all entered into the massve database of voter contacts and preferences held by all parties. By establishing yourself as a ‘non-voter’ for the future, and depending on electoral strategies (in the context of parties’ finite resources) you risk being excluded from any later engagement in which you may actually be interested (whether at local level of because of significant changes in the voting patterns of your seat). All this is of course predicated in you continuing to live in the same area. I’m not saying that this approach from parties is the right one, or that it is uniform across seats, but you can see why it is adopted. Of course being ignored for ever by local parties may be a conscious choice, but arguably doesn’t fit with the notion that you (ie. the OP writer) is interested enough in politics to vote if s/he felt it counted.


Good points, but the latter doesn’t apply if you intend to spoil your ballot as obviously you are still marked as having voted as you’ve taken a ballot paper – no-one knows for sure what you specifically have done with that ballot paper!

The traditional whine that individual votes don’t make a difference under this or that system always seems a bit odd to me. The whole entire purpose of voting is about uniting into a greater whole – about being part of something larger than ourselves. If you whinge that “my vote is a wasted vote” simply because that single vote is unlikely to be decisive then you don’t appear to understand the point of voting. Your vote won’t make the difference but neither does that of the nutjob up the street who’s not a racist but he’s voting BNP this time…

The impossible dream of the constitutional reformer is a world where everyone has a casting vote. And the thing about impossible dreams is that they are, well, impossible.

Politics isn’t just voting – that’s just how we choose to keep score. Politics is about persuasion. It’s about ideas. The real tragedy of this election is not that some seats are less likely than others to change hands – its that neither of the main parties has any ideas.

Your already selected future MP will get to know how frustrated you are

If they are elected in a safe seat, they likely won’t care how frustrated you are.

Better to vote Lib Dem or Green. They might not win the seat but both the Lib Dems in particular use the size of their vote share as an argument for electoral reform – they got 20% of the vote in 2005, but only 10% of seats in parliament.

All votes for the party you support are useful for them. It might be a safe seat at this election but in one or two elections time it might have shifted to a contestable. By then we might have some electoral reform. It’s better to try to build an alternative rather than simply protesting the status quo.

Guys, I’ve added a clause to my original post that I missed last night, and will add it here in a bit; it’s not as clear as I’d hoped.

There are a lot of people (frequently not the type to read a site like this) who aren’t going to vote. Disproportionately, those voters will be in safe seats. If you’re not going to vote, far far better to go down and actively not vote than to passively sit at home saying it doesn’t matter.

I’d rather everyone voted for a genuinely liberal MP (who will mostly but not exclusively be Lib Dem, obviously), but if they’re thinking of not voting, they should at least do something that has an impact.

Detailed responses, especially to Don and Mike, to follow, I need to cook lunch first.

If they can muster the effort to go down to the polling both, and consider what to do with their ballot paper, then I reckon it would be better to tell them to vote Lib Dem than do something which won’t register.

None of the above/not voting/writing in your own message – not of these things send a message.

Voting Lib Dem or Green does.

Good article.

The problem with some of the comments is that the LD have not made PR a red line issue for a hung parliament. While I understand the reasoning for making economic demands clear, how can the Lib Dems campaign on changing the ‘old politics of a two party system’, only to not demand PR when the crunch comes?

Obviously as a Plaid member in one of the safest seats in Torfaen, I recognise the problems for smaller parties in safe seats. However, we are a local party who got councillors elected for the first time in 2008, and now have a candidate willing to campaign hard in every ward next time. Aside from the electoral reform we so desperately need, smaller parties are beginning to professionalise and campaign hard against the rather aloof ruling party.

There are lots of reasons why voter turnout is low. If you are curious about how the British public views its day-to-day relationship with democracy then you need to see Counted?

It’s a play that asks why – in a world at war over democracy and in economic meltdown – so many people would rather vote for the X-Factor than in a general election. It’s being staged in the Debating Chamber at County Hall – right across the river from Westminster, and it opens next week.

Come and hear real people’s moving and humourous stories (told word-for-word) about what it really means to feel counted.


@ 12

The whole entire purpose of voting is about uniting into a greater whole – about being part of something larger than ourselves. If you whinge that “my vote is a wasted vote” simply because that single vote is unlikely to be decisive then you don’t appear to understand the point of voting.

So what is the point?

If the world will be the same regardless of whether or not you do something, there is, logically, no point in doing it.

And what about those for whom “uniting into a greater whole” feels a bit grubby, like sharing a bath with the rest of the rugby team?

Because the truth is democracy is a sham- a massive, disingenuous confidence trick.

In what other sphere of human activity could millions of people be motivated to simultaneously carry out such an utterly pointless action and yet feel good about themselves for having done it? To feel that by drawing two lines on a piece of paper, they had bonded, at some primal level, with their fellow man and the universe?

For example, if entrants to the National Lottery could be absolutely guaranteed, before they entered, that they would not win, how many would we expect to fill in a ticket? And would we expect them to feel better about themselves when they lost?

Moreover, the act of voting homologates the process. By participating in democracy you demonstrate you have swallowed the lies and tacitly legitimise the five years of tyranny you are about to endure.

You will gather I will not be voting anytime soon.

@18 pagar

..so what’s the alternative? It’s easy to say “the truth is democracy is a sham- a massive, disingenuous confidence trick.”, but what else would you suggest?

Maybe you are right but Churchill (for all his faults) was probably right: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” ?

21. Charlieman

The guidance to Local Returning Officers goes out of its way to be unclear about writing on ballot papers. However, my reading of the guidelines is that you can write on ballot papers AND mark them correctly, and that the paper will be valid. As long as the writing does not identify the voter, the paper should be initially classified as doubtful and then put in the valid pile after review. The guidelines also state that the Local Returning Officer should attempt to allow rather than to reject.

I’m not suggesting that it is a wise move, but if you vote for somebody and write “idiot” next to the name of the Conservative candidate, your vote will almost always be counted.

#21 I agree with that interpretation, in fact I’ve seen that happen.

Id rather claw my eyes out than vote for the lying war-mongering hypocrites of New Labour. The sooner they’re gone the better.

Shuggy, been swamped all day, but I find it rather amusing that a site predicated around tactical voting is defending the idea of safe seats.

Sorry guys, now not sober enough to be coherent, got dragged to the pub by a candidate after we finished collecting signatures; the joys of agenting an election.

Oh, come to think of it Charlieman is right, that’s not a bad idea at all. Might do that myself.

26. Charlieman

I’ll put my “I Am Not A Lawyer” hat on, for a moment. Most Local Returning Officers are not lawyers either, and they may interpret rude remarks on a ballot paper more strictly than the (confused) guidelines.

The safest way to complain about the electoral system via your ballot paper is to mark “1” rather than a cross for your preferred candidate. In the sweaty council sports hall where the count is conducted, I doubt that your protest will be noted unless 500 people do the same.

27. MartinRDB

My vote has never counted, so I fully sympathise with spoiling the ballot paper in this way.

An alternative strategy is to give the scrutineers something to argue over

In view of my previous remarks, it may be appropriate for me to point out that I consider electoral reform to be of secondary importance despite the facts that I will be voting Lib Dem and, following the boundary changes, I live in one of the safest Labour seats in the country.

My problem is not the size of Harriet Harman’s majority, it is that I think she is an idiot and that her party is stuffed with other idiots. This is a minority view in my part of town – I accept that. My vote will not therefore be decisive in booting her out of office. Fine. My political energy will need to be focused elsewhere.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. House Of Twits

    RT @libcon Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/d4Zyta

  2. Chris Gerhard

    RT: @libcon: Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/d4Zyta // Including me. Monster Raving Looney could bet my vote.

  3. CathElliott

    RT @libcon: Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/d4Zyta

  4. Lee Griffin

    RT @libcon: Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/d4Zyta

  5. Richard Maddrell

    @libcon Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/d4Zyta … answer is http://www.blankvote.org.uk

  6. Clare Cochrane

    Instructions for if you live in a safe seat RT: @CathElliott: RT @libcon: Why vote? http://bit.ly/d4Zyta

  7. Thomas O Smith

    RT @libcon: Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/d4Zyta

  8. Sophielle

    RT @oxfordbloo: Instructions for if you live in a safe seat RT: @CathElliott: RT @libcon: Why vote? http://bit.ly/d4Zyta

  9. andrew

    Liberal Conspiracy » Why vote? No point for most voters: About the author: Mat Bowles is a regular contributor to … http://bit.ly/b6jXNQ

  10. Kate

    Why vote? For residents of 382 of 650 seats, the result is a foregone conclusion. No wonder turnout is low! http://tinyurl.com/ykzx8eq

  11. earwicga

    RT @libcon Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/bG9e4R

  12. blogs of the world

    Turnout is incredibly low in many of them; that doesn't necessarily indicate disaffection,… http://reduce.li/g529ss #point

  13. patrick hill

    RT @libcon: Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/bFgsbc

  14. Mat Bowles

    @bladwino Nowt wrong with cynicism, it partially inspired this: http://bit.ly/afEFJ4 but Calder Valley is an ultra marginal-way/3-way

  15. Jonathan Lintern

    RT: @libcon: Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/d4Zyta << Both constituencies I can vote in on the 'safe list'. 1 Lab, 1 LD.

  16. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/d4Zyta

  17. topsy_top20k

    Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/d4Zyta

  18. aliceh

    RT @libcon: Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/d4Zyta

  19. Mat Bowles

    wrote a LibCon post: Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/a6JMFz

  20. uberVU - social comments

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by houseoftwits: RT @libcon Why vote? No point for most voters http://bit.ly/d4Zyta

  21. Liberal Conspiracy » Why vote? No point for most voters « Jim Nicholson's Blog

    […] attend the Digital Economy Bill debate last night.  Not that he will be worrried, according to Liberal Conspiracy » Why vote? No point for most voters he is in a safe seat, so I will be following their advice and spoiling my ballot paper.  I […]

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