Voting’s Like a Jar of Jellybeans. The earwax-flavoured kind.

There is a UK General Election today (at the time of writing). I’m talking British politics, but the principle remains the same for anyone with a vote, including the US people with local elections coming up, because local elections matter too.

I saw yet another article recently on People Who Don’t Vote. People granted space in the national news to express their views on why they don’t want to express their views. So, that’s bewilderingly pointless.

Actually, there should be more articles on people who don’t participate in the basic requirements of society. Maybe People Who Don’t Put Their Rubbish in the Bin (“What difference does one crisp wrapper make?”) and People Who Don’t Say Thank You When Doors Are Held Open (“It’s pointless, it doesn’t change anything,”) and People Who Watch Other People Fall Over And Don’t Try to Help (“Well, I don’t feel it’s anything to do with me, you know?”). Perhaps even People Who Refuse Point Blank to Give Their Opinion While The Office Party is Being Planned, And Then Sulk Because They Don’t Want to Go Bowling. I’ve often wondered what that’s about.

Let’s look at these.

“What difference does one vote make?”

Very little. It’s not meant to. You aren’t the Patrician.

Ankh-Morpork had dallied with many forms of government and had ended up with that form of democracy known as One Man, One Vote. The Patrician was the Man; he had the Vote. (Terry Pratchett)

The point isn’t that you vote and then the country is run to your specification. The point is that we all vote and the country is run to an aggregate of our opinion. It’s like those ‘guess how many jellybeans are in the jar’ things. If you guess, you will be horribly wrong. If ten people guess, the average of their guesses will be closer to the right answer. If a hundred people guess, their average estimate will be surprisingly accurate.

It is obviously not the case that all elections end with a ‘right’ answer. It is particularly not the case when you have an electoral system like First Past the Post, as Britain does, which pretty much guarantees an unrepresentative result in a multi-party system. Nevertheless, the system is based on everyone giving their opinion and an overall result emerging, and remember, however much you may think the system sucks, you live in it. The only thing not voting achieves is to give extra weight to the voices of people who do vote, and their interests may not be yours. Because if you’re one of the 40% of people who don’t bother to guess the number of jellybeans, the other 60% will skew the result.

“It’s pointless, it doesn’t change anything.”

In the last election, 80% of over 65s voted, and only 47% of 18-24s did. As a direct result, we have a government very interested in protecting pensions, and completely unbothered by introducing tuition fees for students.

The ruling party, whatever it is, helps the groups likely to keep them in power at the expense of the groups who won’t. That is what governments do, because they want to stay in power. If you don’t want any particular government to stay in power, your options are as follows:

  • Plot a coup, raise a revolutionary army, march on Westminster singing rousing songs, string them all up from lampposts, become Military Dictator of New Britain, get a fluffy white cat or maybe a chair made of swords.
  • Vote.

All voting sends a message. Voting for a candidate who is nearest to your views but doesn’t stand a chance sends a message of ‘I want more and valid choice’ (and if enough people do it we may get electoral reform). Turning up and drawing a penis over your ballot paper sends a message about problematic disengagement of people from the current system, because they count up the spoiled ballots. And not voting sends a message about who can be safely ignored by every single party. Oh look, it’s you.

Incidentally, for the record, there is not one single UK MP with an outright majority of eligible voters. If we all voted, there wouldn’t be a safe seat in the country. Just saying.

 “I don’t feel it’s anything to do with me, you know?”

Then you’re not paying attention. If you live in a building, or get sick, or get old, or have children, or are LGBT, or ever leave the country, or have a job, or don’t have a job, or pay tax, or buy things, or breathe air, then politics affects you, and pretending it doesn’t is, frankly, ridiculous.

“I don’t want to go bowling!”

Then you should have said so at the point we asked for your opinion, and we might have made a different decision. But you didn’t say. And now it’s too late.


Voting isn’t a special treat for a special flower, let alone a magic wand. But it shapes the world you live in, it takes half an hour once every couple of years, and UK voters don’t even need a polling card: if you’re on the electoral register, you can just turn up.

And then we can get back to the far more interesting business of talking about books.


KJ Charles can’t stand bowling, which is why she votes.

18 replies
  1. Lotta
    Lotta says:

    So well put! Thank you! I’m not in Britain, so I can’t vote tomorrow, but I do go out of my way to vote where I live.

    “The point isn’t that you vote and then the country is run to your specification. The point is that we all vote and the country is run to an aggregate of our opinion.” – Yes, this! It’s like so many things in society that hangs on everybody taking part, where I have the feeling more people are saying “but what’s in it for *me*?” Well, not everything can be about you. Some things are for the good of society as a whole. This is such a thing.

  2. Rj Scott
    Rj Scott says:

    This. 🙂

    I have never missed a vote in my life.. because if I don’t vote, how can I criticise who is in power – what gives me the right?

    And, damnit, I love bowling…

  3. Lloyd A. Meeker
    Lloyd A. Meeker says:

    Marvelous argument, KJ! The big point for me is that the outcome of elections does affect everyone, and it’s usually lethargy masquerading as cynicism that claims it doesn’t matter who gets into office, the “little guy” still gets screwed over.

    Your list — “If you live in a building, or get sick, or get old, or have children, or are LGBT, or ever leave the country, or have a job, or don’t have a job, or pay tax, or buy things, or breathe air, then politics affects you, and pretending it doesn’t is, frankly, ridiculous” is the perfect answer to anyone who doesn’t want to man up and eat his ear-wax flavored jelly beans!

  4. jenf27
    jenf27 says:

    I don’t like bowling either. But, I have voted in every election since I was eligible – even though I am in the minority politically-wise where I live. This was a precedent set by my parents and I hope my kids will continue it.

    Thanks for the great post. It is interesting how the points you make are also salient in the US.

  5. Vincent H.
    Vincent H. says:

    47% of my age group voted (18-24) voted? That’s pretty insane when compared to the US’ last general election, where… 13% of the 18-29 age bracket voted. I sent in a mail-in ballot, but nobody else around me really seems that interested in politics.

  6. sejoness
    sejoness says:

    This is why I like the Australian system. People say “But look at all the spoiled ballots”. They only come to about 5% of the vote though. 5% of a vote where 92% of the voting public turn up to vote. Mandatory voting few. And honestly, the number of times I’ve been asked by friends “who are these people anyway”, and actually got to explain the political parties, is far greater than it would have been if those people had had the choice to just ignore it all. Also, the fine for not voting is only 30 dollars (15 pounds or thereabouts). It’s more a nuisance than something that’s going to put you in jail. So if you *really* don’t want to, you don’t have to. I just think making it a “rule” makes people get off their seats and actually do something. All IMO, YMMV etc

  7. Pam/Peejakers
    Pam/Peejakers says:

    This makes so much sense. I vote for you to be in charge of things 🙂

    Yeah, the not voting thing, it’s disgusting. I think what the “my vote doesn’t count” people really mean, or think, is that the votes *don’t* add up to mean anything, because they believe there are not enough people who believe the same way they do to make a difference. But this is an insane conclusion to make without even trying. They are basing it on past outcomes, but past outcomes are based on huge numbers of people not voting because . . . & around it goes.

    And also the thing about, “well, I don’t like anyone who is running”. Well, ok, but then maybe the question to ask is, do you *dislike* anyone who is running? Or, are you scared of someone who is running? Then at least vote for the least disliked, least terrifying candidate.

    And, I’m so sorry for how your elections turned out yesterday. Makes me want to cry & I don’t even live there 🙁

  8. Lizbeth Gabriel (@lizbethmuses)
    Lizbeth Gabriel (@lizbethmuses) says:

    I used to live in the UK, and now that the Conservatives are elected, my chances of finding a job and returning start resembling the punch line of a blurb. It belongs to a very dear book I re-read recently, the Magpie Lord: ” A snowball in hell.”
    My best friend is Greek, and he has a brother who lives and works there for the past five or six years. His wife is English. Their four year old daughter, born in the UK, was not granted the British nationality. In fact she hasn’t been granted any nationality. Her only hope is still being in UK when she turns 18, in which case it will be under consideration.
    Is this outrageously wrong or is it just me?


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