February 5 was National Voter Registration Day. As we draw closer to the general election, and voter registration processes have changed, there’s a need to ensure as many people as possible are registered to vote. Participation in elections isn’t great in the UK, with only 65% of those eligible to vote doing so in the 2010 election. But why should people vote? People often say they don’t vote because it won’t make any difference, they feel that the main political parties are so similar it doesn’t matter who they choose, and that politicians don’t keep their pre-election promises. All these things might be true, but I still believe that voting is important and that everyone should do it. I believe this because of a book written by a Frenchman that was first published in 1762. I believe that voting is important because what I learned from Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
Rousseau was a philosopher, whose seminal work The Social Contract influenced philosophy, politics, and society to a huge extent. This book influenced French citizens who went on to be part of the revolution in 1789, and the reformed state that followed it. Rousseau’s ideas still hold weight today, with the US Constitution being an example of an agreement between state and citizens that is similar to what was described in The Social Contract.
Rousseau described how an agreement could be drawn up between a state and its citizens that would guarantee everyone certain protected rights in exchange for upholding certain responsibilities. This idea had been talked about before, but Rousseau took it further, thinking about not only what the state owed you in exchange for upholding the law, but also what citizens could do it they didn’t agree with the actions of the state.
If you don’t agree with the actions of the state you are in, you have three options.
1. Accept the actions of the state
2. Try to change the state
3. Leave and find somewhere more agreeable
For many people, option 3 isn’t really possible (although it’s much more achievable now that in 1762), and on certain issues, you might not be able to simply accept the actions of the state. So the available option is to try and create change. There are a few ways this can be done, but they often aren’t practically possible for individuals. A one-person revolution is unlikely to be successful, as much as I would like it to be otherwise. Campaigning and getting more people to see your viewpoint can create change; but it can be really difficult, and requires time and people power to happen on a big scale. There is a way individuals can bring about change and hold the state accountable that is already built into our society: voting.
Voting allows each of us to put across our views (or decide what best represents our views, and thus is agreeable), and tell the state what we want it to do, or not do as the case may be. If enough people agree with your viewpoint and also vote, it will be represented in the state, and you will have participated in creating change.
Voting is built into our system of Government; voting is a right; the corresponding responsibility is to use that right to hold our Government to account. The way the democratic system operates assumes that citizens will vote. If we don’t, how can we expect the system to function properly? If we disagree with the actions of the state but don’t vote, we’re not trying to create change, we’re not engaging with the system, we’re finding fault and refusing to do anything about it. It would be like discovering your house is full of mould, but not trying to fix it, and not moving to a different home. It would be living in an undesirable situation, and moaning about it, but not using the power you have to improve it.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau made this obvious in 1762. In 2015, not everyone has got the message. If you want to change our society and state, vote. If you’re happy and want to keep it as it is, vote. If you want more representation in our world, vote. If you have a view, and want it to be heard, vote. If you want the state to work for you, vote.