The sin of not voting – and why so many people commit it


We all know we should do it. It's our right and our responsibility; people fought and died to enable it. It's the clearest hallmark of a free and democratic society, a key delineator of adulthood and the mechanism by which we prevent the wrong people from having power over us.

Yet every time there's an election in the US or the UK, voter turnout statistics tell us that it's a right many people choose not to assert. In the UK a third of the voting population didn't participate in the 2015 general election, while in the USA the picture was even worse, with only 54.9 per cent voting in the 2012 Presidential contest. The numbers are invariably much lower for elections of relatively lesser importance, such as local or European votes; the last UK-wide referendum (over the voting system) drew just 41 per cent of voters out to the polls.

Voting involves two fairly straightforward steps; filling out a simple form to register, and then taking a short walk or drive to a local polling station to actually 'x' the relevant box. In most cases the whole process takes less than an hour out of our lives. It's a relatively tiny amount of time, reduced even further by the postal voting system, introduced to widen access to those with mobility issues or insanely busy lives. It's remarkably easy; still those turnout figures persist. We're able to vote, we all subscribe to the idea that we should have and use a vote, and yet a vast percentage of us simply don't bother. Why?

Why we don't bother

For some who don't turn out, it's simply a case of life running away from them on polling day. They say they always intended to vote, but the baby got sick/ grandma popped around unexpectedly/ the traffic was horrible. For whatever reason they never managed to get to the polling station. But while that might actually be true and unavoidable in a minority of cases, for most people the truth is that they didn't prioritise voting. It wasn't more important than the coffee they'd organised with a friend, or that urgent trip to the mall. It's apathy dressed up as busyness.

Others deliberately don't vote because they struggle to see the value of being one drop in an ocean. In the UK for instance the electoral system means that my vote in a strongly conservative area is virtually meaningless in terms of the outcome. For these people, stories of single starfish thrown back into the ocean (you know: it doesn't matter, but it mattered to that one...) hold little currency; if you're disillusioned with the electoral system your motivation to exercise a right as a matter of principle may be quite low.

For other people that sense of disengagement is more general – a feeling of frustration and disappointment with politicians, unethical practices, scandals, and a prevailing cultural feeling that power corrupts. What's the point in participating in a broken system? And for another group the disillusionment is with the range of parties or candidates on offer. As Charles Spurgeon once said, "of two evils, choose neither".

All of these factors combine to dramatically reduce the numbers of people who actually show up on polling day. And with two major elections on the horizon – one in the United Kingdom, and one in the United States, both of which could dramatically shape the future way beyond those nations – that's hugely problematic.

Why we must bother

The trouble with not taking part in an election at all is that it makes you partly culpable when the 'wrong' person gets elected. There will no doubt be millions of Americans who are both outraged at the outcome of the Presidential election in November, and didn't take part in it.

When Britain votes to either leave or remain in the EU later this month, millions of the country's residents will be kicking themselves for choosing one more Netflix episode over a stroll to the local church hall. And of course we all know this, even as we're allowing it to be true of us. Such is the flakey, apathetic, and often downright irresponsible nature of our culture, we simply drift into not voting. And terrifyingly, that could be what happens: we'll just drift in or out of Europe; America will drift into a Presidential choice it could regret for a decade.

For Christians, voter apathy is perhaps a more serious business that we imagine. The Bible is clear that Christians should participate in the processes that govern their land, from Jesus' assertion to "give to Caesar what is Caesar's" (various, inc Matthew 22:21) to Paul's command to pray "for Kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all Godliness and holiness" (1 Timothy 2:2). The second part of Paul's instruction there is very telling: the motivation for our prayers should be the vision of a successful and peaceful society, and one in which the Christian faith is allowed to thrive.

Yet what does it communicate to God if we pray for such a thing, yet don't vote for it? I'd argue that voting is a very practical way of bringing that prayer to life, a kind of democracy-focussed version of Pope Francis's great statement that "you pray for the hungry, then you feed them; this is how prayer works".

By contrast, not voting could actually be considered an abdication of that responsibility and command, a telling lack of self-discipline which belies our selfishness and lack of true concern for the society around us. Simply put, not bothering to show up and vote is a very modern indication of that ancient problem: the sinful nature.

Of course, there are many for whom conscience simply doesn't allow them to vote for any of the candidates, parties or options on offer. In these instances, there's almost always a Third Way; an option to proactively abstain or spoil a ballot paper. At least by doing this, we have participated in democracy; we've earned the right to complain and protest if the eventual result proves to be a bad choice.

One final thought: imagine if you couldn't vote. We're incredibly fortunate to be in the position where we have the ability to choose whether we bother to participate in a democratic election if not. For millions of people around the world, the idea that we have such a right and choose not to use it must be horribly offensive. Yet in a culture of entitlement, millions of us can't be bothered to exercise a right that some in other countries (and many through history) have died for. In that context, voter turnout figures shame us all.

On both sides of the Atlantic the coming elections have precipitated a mighty tidal wave of opinion pieces, social media arguments, TV debates and radio phone-ins, to the point where we start to become desensitised; we even start to become bored. We must resist apathy around democracy; it's simply too important, and in both cases, the potential results are too significant. If our nations make a terrible decision on their respective election days, let it not be because they sleep-walked into it; let it not be because people like us simply didn't bother to show up.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders

If you're in the UK, you have until midnight tonight (Thursday) to register to vote online