Give Away Your Vote – That’s Crazy (Or Is It?)!

This is a guest post by Jason Foster.

Many years ago, I was berated by a friend for my plan to abstain from voting in a general election on the grounds that none of the political parties fielding candidates in my constituency held views similar to mine (perhaps of little surprise, given how little sway anarcho-syndicalism held in Tebbitt’s Essex of the 1980s).

My friend told me that if I did not exercise my vote, I had no right to complain about the actions of the elected government. The converse of which was, presumably, if I did vote for a party which represented none of my political views, I had every right to complain if a government formed by that party acted in a way I objected to, even if it were completely in keeping with its pre-election manifesto, which I had previously read, understood and disagreed with.

Well, Nick East, pick the bones out of this. The ‘give your vote’ campaign wants abstainers to donate their vote to those in other countries who have more of a view on British political life than the many jaded, underwhelmed ballot-casters which make up a good part of the British electorate.

The driving concept is that British citizens vote for British governments, which make decisions that affect many people in other parts of the world, who do not have a vote in Britain’s general elections. Which, considering the Iraqi military adventure debacle or the waste-dumping in West Africa super-injunction farce, seems a fair point to raise.

Egality, the activist group driving the campaign (and, I like to imagine, the bitter enemy of think-tanks Liberty and Fraternity), points out that there are many thousands of people who are entitled to vote in British elections who, for one reason or another, do not cast their vote.

Indeed, it is one of the ironies of the modern democratic system in Britain that the right to influence how we are ruled should be treated with as widespread indifference by the many, that the principle of universal franchise is routinely reduced to the diktat of the relative few who can be arsed to generate an opinion and go to a polling station to express it once every five years.

But here comes the crunch: Egality is urging us to give our unused votes to people in other countries – specifically Ghana, Afghanistan or Bangladesh – to use for their own political agenda.

Technology provides the means: Would-be abstainers sign up via the website, and receive a text message on polling day directing them who to vote for. Predictably, there are Twitter and Facebook elements.

(Actually, why leave it there? With the internet, the possibilities are endless: For example, what is there to prevent a vote-exchange system – the Multi-Coloured Swapshop of Suffrage, if you will – where a voter in, say, Sutton Coldfield swaps their May 2010 vote with a freedom-lover from California for a future Presidential contest, with comments moderated by Noel Edmonds? Or a ballot auction clearing house, (a new Ebay category of franchise, for example) where one can sell one’s vote to the highest bidder? Or indeed a combination of the two models, based along similar lines as the carbon credits offsetting scheme?)

When I first heard about the ‘give your vote’ campaign, on the radio in the kitchen, I cheered aloud for the sheer obtuseness of it. It’s not often you get this kind of high-browed imbecility. But when I came to set down exactly what I found so deplorable about it, I could not put my finger on one single reason. So many tried to muscle in at the same time, none could get through the front door.

Even now, after I’ve had a while to think about it, I cannot settle on one of the many reasons why one should object to the prospect of, for example, a Pashtun nationalist in downtown Kandahar casting a vote in, say, my south London constituency, where one of the most pressing political issues in recent months revolved around what should be done with a piece of graffiti (or is it art?) personally spray-canned by Banksy.

Indeed, I find myself in the bizarre position of wondering whether the ‘give your vote’ campaign is a perfectly reasonable idea, and it is merely my knee-jerk, mid-life reaction to it that prevents me from understanding this.

So here’s the deal. I will freely give my vote to the party of choice of the person who gives me the most salient argument as to why the ‘give your vote’ campaign is such an abhorrent betrayal of the principles of democracy, (or, if you’re feeling very persuasive and optimistic, why it is a good idea).

Leave a comment ?


  1. I have many thoughts on the problems of the voting system, but I’ll stick with a single comment that seems most relevant.

    There is a widely and hotly debated topic (which I’ll avoid naming) where I felt that I should disqualify myself from voting. This is an issue where one portion of the population is dramatically affected by the issue, while the portion that I am in is only indirectly affected if at all (i.e. a very starkly obvious border between the groups). However, I noticed that certain moral extremists were, in my opinion, butting their heads in wear they didn’t belong. On that basis, I wondered if I shouldn’t cast a vote simply to oppose those that I felt should butt out.

    Much of what I’ve heard people say about how they deal with voting can be nicely characterized by the recently (this past decade) coined term ‘gaming’ (as used in describing the undesirable voting practices within social networking). As such, I think this topic will grow into a major issue as we begin to examine the issues of voting systems more closely.

  2. I presume you have the secret ballot over there on the Sceptered Isle? If so, what guarantee do I have as an agnostic/athiest Afghani that you will cast my vote for the Tory of my choice?

  3. I swapped my vote in 1997. It was via a tactical voting web site. I was in a constituency that the Lib Dems had a chance of winning, but which Labour couldn’t win. I was matched with a fella in a constituency that Labour had a chance of winning, but which the Lib Dems couldn’t. I wanted to vote Labour. He wanted to vote Lib Dem. So we swapped. I voted Lib Dem for him. He voted Labour for me.

    It was an honour thing (to quote the West Wing).

    Norman Lamont turned up on my doorstep (canvassing) during that election. I had a tactical voting poster in my window. He was outraged! I felt a bit sorry for him really. I always thought he got screwed over a bit by the Tories.

  4. The problem with this idea is that people who don’t vote are even less likely to vote on behalf of someone else.

  5. Sounds like an issue of the cart and the horse.

    Before one can claim the vote swap, sell, or gift is invalid or morally wrong, one must first prove the moral, ethical, or otherwise validity of voting. Now I will not provide a proof that voting is OK (and I do not think it can be proven), but if it is valid, then how can it not be OK for the individual to do anything he chooses with it? That is, if it is a “right” then how can it not be one’s “right” to do whatever he chooses with it? So: first provide the proof of its (voting’s) validity then that proof can be used to examine the second (sell/swap) for its validity.

    I suspect any problem one has with alternative uses of voting is based on an improper foundation that he uses to justify attempting to force others to do as he wishes (voting).

  6. I’m not sure that I understand the idea, but if I understand it, I would say that the principle problem with it is that I rarely know enough about the politics of another country to decide that I would give my vote to a candidate there. Things are seldom what they seem in politics, which is one of the reasons that I rarely vote, and while I may partially understand what a candidate stands for in Chile, where I live, that is, what he or she represents behind the rhetoric and the marketing, I am much more likely to be deceived about the political dynamics of the Ukraine or Japan or India.

  7. I heard about this campaign and think its just plain brilliant. It’s turning everything on its head and that’s why you are confused. And the fact that you are is the genius of it.

    Firstly it reminds us how democracy works. Democracy is people run. In the US George Bush was a man got thrown out when he had screwed up the economy. For the rest of the world Bush was an abstract dictator that sat on the other side of the indiscriminate trigger. The difference was who voted. Its a symbolic act akin to the social contract. You’re either under the thumb of the politician or standing at the side of the gladiatorial ring ready to give the thumbs up or thumbs down.

    Secondly it highlights the lack of democracy at the supra national level. We’ve spent the last ten years fighting war to build national parliaments we haven’t looked up. If we did we’d see the enormous democratic emptiness in the UN which is meant to be legitimatising these adventures. Why do they even want to vote here? They shouldn’t need to. That’s the point. It’s a ridiculous act. But that’s what we’re going to end up with.

    Thirdly, its a complete paradigm shift in our third world/first world division. One lobbies. The other decides. One pleads. The other offers. A say in the political process? Well that wasn’t on the cards at all was it.

    I won’t give my vote, because I want to use mine, but as far as I’m concerned the campaign’s already done its work just getting you confused about it.

  8. It can be (and in the constitutency I live in, it IS) an awful problem.
    Usually, it should be possible to find, at the very worst option a least-worst candidate to vote for.
    But what does one do, if that is not the case?
    Consider this example:

    This constituency has a history of being marginal. At one time, when I was very small, the West part of the constituency was that of the Prime Minster, the central section was a marginal, and the next constituencyto the East, was that of the Leader of the Opposition. At the next election, by which time I was at school, the positions reversed, and Churchill re-occupied Number 10…..
    Now, the long-standing, very good local constituency, and non-party-line-toeing Labour MP is standing down. I want Labour OUT, particularly given local incompetence and sleaze, never mind national issues. The tories are probably no-hopers here, now. and the Lem-o-crats? Have thrown their chance away, because no educated woman, or anyone who thinks women should have equal right to men, can vote for their candidate, because he is of a religion that specifically states that women are inferior (to men)….
    Who else is there, assuming you still want Labour out?
    A protest vote, under our system, at a General E. is a waste.

  9. If such a scheme were prevalent enough, it would surely affect the campaigning and strategy of the candidates; imagine brokerages and clearinghouses employing floors of analysts to determine the likeliest policy from individual politicians. Commoditized votes, methinks, would rapidly result in an overt oligarchy composed of multinational firms. More than likely, the whole of suffrage for entire countries may be pooled into a single ownership.

    Question – in a commoditized voting system, whereby the votes are subject to exchange, are governments allowed to purchase? Can they run a massive deficit to fund their own continuance?

    ad absurdum, a government would try to govern benignly enough to avoid revolution while directing all other resources to the control of the electoral system. Would they be too involved in this process to fight other governments if other governments were doing the same thing? Or maybe one country might take another over in a “hostile” manner without ever firing a weapon, via the market.

    I cannot say whether vote swapping is inherently right or wrong in the context of democracy; it would just be different, with the pros and cons that come with market-like structures.

  10. I am at the moment canvassing for a political party in the UK elections. I often come across people who say they “do not vote”, and say it not with an air of it not being a failure, or an abnegation of their rights, but an assertions of a right not to engage in a political process. Of course their abstaining does influence the process, because it fails to balance a possible vote for potential “opposing” candidate elsewhere. It is their freedom to allow another individual to influence an outcome in a way that is in accordance with their (i.e., a participants) wishes. It may not however be in accord with the wishes of the abstainer when the consequences of that are spelt out. The vote is an allowance and conjointly a permit to govern. Yet the absence of a vote cannot be a permit not to govern, because that is only so in the system. We are simply not trading permissions across boundaries, other wise the system cannot work. In the limiting case if everyone abstains then no one gets elected. We seem to have two negatives – the abstaining, which in total is part of the system of elections, and then a giving of the unused vote to someone outside the country to vote for a candidate not of their country (the “Egality” mob). If there is money involved one can imagine many abstained votes being sold which would undermine any balance of electoral wishes in respect of candidates, because the weights would be heavily in terms of those who saw the advantage to themselves of having a certain candidate elected. The sale would rely heavily on ignorance and also on negative campaigning against opposing candidates policies that dubbed them as worthless.The present smearing would be as nothing. Any votes sold abroad would have to be sold individually and not sold as blocks, otherwise it would rely almost totally on someone’s pocket book (so what different you might say, this happens anyway – but it happens in terms of campaining for votes, not buying votes). If votes were brokered and purchased then we would return to a system that universal franchise was supposed to have left behind. No one is to count for more than one, even if some do not wish to count.

  11. Ahh, I know I should let this go but it’s fascinating to me. You might as well be arguing how many angles can dance on the head of a pin. As I stated above, so long as there is a secret ballot, none of this matters. And as Jakob stated above, anyone who doesn’t vote is even less likely to vote for someone else.

    Look, if you so hate your country that you’re willing to let someone who opposes it’s policies do your voting for you, why not just go out and vote for the most anti-UK candidate you can find and save yourself all the trouble of constructing some “system”? Even if you are daft enough to be serious about this, how do you “legitimize” the person from the other country?

    Really, this is nonsense on stilts.

  12. Jonathan,

    I’m curious about the cultural comparison, considering that here in states we have the same kind of voter apathy, and yet we are supposed to have this great pride in the concept of representation as a founding principal in the establishment of this country.

    And, I wonder about that “limiting case”. What would happen if voter turnout were to drop significantly? At what point would someone take action, 30%, 20%, 10%? Would a reasonable government move towards mandatory elections (which I understand some governments already have)? Or, would something really nefarious occur, like removing the concept of representation, consent to govern, social contract, etc.?

    But, isn’t this the question being asked with this idea of giving away the vote? If there was a lot of this, say greater than 50%, how might it change the laws regarding voting?

    And, this seems a good place to ask how people feel about Murray Hill, Inc., if I dare.

  13. Tesserid,
    OK, I’ll bite. This is the first I’ve heard of Murray Hill, Inc. However it appears to be little more than a sophomoric college prank. Of course, the same could be said for this entire post. Do you really think they are all that “daring”? Do you think they have a snowball’s chance in hell of getting on the ballot in the US?

    Perhaps I am the one lost here. Is this a place for philosophy or is this place a wholly owned subsidy of National Lampoon?

  14. I warned you before about your attitude, WTP. You’re now banned from posting here.

  15. Yes, I do think it is a crazy idea. For so many reasons I can’t even take the time to explain why.

    Why so harsh on WTP, Jeremy? I see nothing truly egregious here.

  16. This blog has a number of very strict rules. Here are two of them:

    1. Treat everybody with respect, which means being polite and adopting a principle of charity at all times (which involves amongst other things trying to see the best in their argument and assuming good intentions);

    2. Absolutely no discussion of moderation decisions. I do not want this blog to get bogged down in meta-discussion;

  17. Wow.

    Where is the philosophy? WTP’s comments appear of equal philosophical competence to the main post. That is, Guest requests an argument for or against a concept not clearly defined.

    So how is, “…I cheered aloud for the sheer obtuseness of it. It’s not often you get this kind of high-browed imbecility.” different from “Even if you are daft enough to be serious about this, how do you “legitimize” the person from the other country? ”

    Or is it that WTP asks, “where is the philosophy?” after responding to someone mentioning Murray Hill?

    I would like to know this too: where is the philosophy in asking the question of the original post? The only path to enlightenment is to examine the fundamentals of voting, democracy, rights, etc. Only through seeking to comprehend the context, ethics, morality, etc of democracy can one begin to answer the post’s final question honestly. Otherwise it is just, … well, no different from anything WTP has posted.

    To be clear, I am not asking you to explain the banning of WTP, I am asking how is philosophy defined for purposes of this forum within the context of the Guest post? The Guest’s post directly or implicitly ridicules anyone that considers alternative voting methods legitimate.

  18. Sam

    Are you suggesting that if a post isn’t directly philosophical then it shouldn’t be in Talking Philosophy?

    If you are, well… you don’t get to have a say, do you?

    We’ve always included:

    1. Posts that aren’t entirely serious;

    2. Posts that aren’t philosophical (at all in some cases);

    3. Posts that are pure polemic;


    So I’m not sure what your point is exactly….

  19. Personally, I think it should be made illegal to give away your vote. I heard someone on the radio from Bangladesh who was going to use someone else’s vote to vote purely on green issues. Well, excuse me but green issues are just one point. Those of us that live here have many, many other things to consider such as education, tax, public transport, etc.
    To me, the whole idea is ludicrous. If you don’t want to use your vote because you have no one worthy of your vote, why on earth would you let someone else do it instead?

  20. I am a 27 yr old non-voter, who is considering voting this time round. I have considered going for this, but thats all. I’m just curious what an Afghan would prefer. The Afghan has no surety I will comply, or whether the next parliament will join an oil crusade. As a protest it has no value, as there’s no way of knowing how many votes were given away.

    No-one has mentioned the re-open nominations idea, i wish they would add a RON box just so that i can see if the non-voting hordes do get up off their bums or not.

    Personally, i would go for a vast sum, say 1% of the GDP, being available as a prize for fulfilling your manifesto, as decided by us, straight into your retirement funds. All you have to do is not waste any of the rest. Get the best business brains in the country at the wheel, not just egotists. No more need for brown envelope stuff, why would you risk that for a few 100k? There would have to be safeguards, but the current system isn’t perfect. If we can’t avoid it, lets let greed work for us.

    I can’t be the 1st to think of this, i bet the Greeks have already tried it, does any of you bright sparks know what this would be called?

  21. A capital idea there, Martin. But the problem is the people who determine what the GDP is work directly for the people who would be getting the 1%. Unlike an accounting firm, they have no other source of income. Unless there was some sort of extra-national organization, not beholden politically or otherwise to that government. Now this might work with, say a western accounting firm and a small south asian or african government, or something like that. Attempting to do this with any government with any sort of pull in the world would involve way too many conflicting contact points.

  22. But, if you cooked the books to allow yourself a bigger share, you’d have less funds to use in achieving your objectives. Increasing national debt would be a sure fire way of getting us to vote you ‘failed’. No, i feel the real reason this or a RON box will never happen is that those in power like the system the way it is.

    Incidentally, Sabrina in Kabul told me to vote liberal, and John Cleese had already convinced me they deserve a crack of the whip. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and i don’t remember Labour or Tory tasting too good.

  23. Much good that did, seems a vote for the liberals was a vote for the tories anyway. Whoever you choose, the government always gets in. Might go back to apathy next time.

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