Sending the wrong message: A comment on spoilt ballots

This is a response to this piece by my comrade/gaffer Simon Gibbs

Sometimes democrats attempt to draw a parallel between voting for a party and buying things in the market. Strictly speaking this is not a very successful analogy; but even so it might prove useful if, like Wittgenstein’s ladder, we pull it up with sufficient haste once we’ve used it.

Say there are chocolate bar manufacturers, A B C and D. An increase in demand for A’s bar tells B C and D that they should be doing more of what A is doing; if they are smart, they will.

Say there are political parties, A B C and D. An increase in demand for A’s policies tells B C and D they should be doing more of what A is doing; if they are smart, they will.

It is at least possible that in this latter case “more” may really mean “less”: a party may offer to “shrink the size of the state,” and the offer may be accepted by voters.

As long as voting is not mandatory, a vote communicates to the political class that the voter is interested in politics (that at a minimum he thinks the political class should exist), and that that interest is, to the extent democratic procedure allows, specific, i.e., a vote for Labour says one thing and a vote for the Conservatives says another.

By contrast, a spoilt ballot in an election where voting is not mandatory communicates to the political class that the voter is interested in politics but not in any specific way*. A spoilt ballot is a request that politicians “do more” without the possibility that “more” really means “less”. Whether or not “every vote counts” (but especially if every vote does count) an increase in the number of spoilt ballots is not something anyone who wants smaller government should be hoping for, let alone advocating.


*While very few, if any, voters agree with absolutely everything a party stands for, votes are interpreted as if that was in fact the case, and this narrative is the one that wins out in practice. Regardless of how or why a ballot is spoiled, it is recorded as a “spoilt ballot” simpliciter. You may well think of your spoilt ballot as a protest against politics, but this is, frankly, neither here nor there.

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9 thoughts on “Sending the wrong message: A comment on spoilt ballots

  1. “A spoilt ballot, on the other hand, communicates to the political class that the voter is interested in politics but not in any specific way.”

    Well, that depends. In places where voting is mandatory — Australia, for example — a spoilt ballot can communicate to the political class that the voter isn’t interested in politics and resents being forced to participate in the ritual.

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  2. “A spoilt ballot is a request that politicians “do more” without the possibility that “more” really means “less”.”

    Why is it? You have asserted that a spoilt ballot is a very specific thing and then proceeded to make an argument based on its very vagueness in the very next paragraph.

    Anyway, I think the main difference here is that I AM NOT actually very interested in achieving a state with exactly zero politics, I am a minarchist. For me, sending a message that I want “not any of these things” is perfectly accurate. There is something else I want that ONLY a politician can offer and it is exactly the kind of “more” that is actually “less”. I understand that a politician will only hear half of that sentence, but pure apathy isn’t working, is it? Apathy has been around for decades and is dismissed as simple apathy. A spoilt ballot is an engaged criticism that, in bulk, would demand interpretation.

    PS why isn’t this at Libertarian Home? I’d rather it was.

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    1. A spoilt ballot is anything but specific. But yes, “without the possibility…” is perhaps a bit strong. Just a vanishingly small possibility. I’m a lot clearer on this in “a less dogmatic comment…” (next post).

      I’ll put this or that one up in a little while.

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