Election Fallacies

Fallacies are things that sound logical, but turn out not to make any sense when you pick them apart. Since the UK general election is coming up in a year or so, it’s likely we’re going to see a lot of these bandied around by people who think that we can save ourselves by ticking a box. I’ll probably be too pissed off to write anything by the time it gets to the election, so I’m going to get in early and list some of the stupidest reasons people give for voting.

1. “People fought for the right to vote – so you have to do it too!”

This is the one that goes around most often. But is it logical? Not really. During the gin riots of 1743, working class people fought for our right to drink alcohol. But I don’t see anyone going around saying that getting drunk should be compulsory (well, no-one serious). At least one of the people who fought for the right to vote would agree, too. Catholic Anarchist Dorothy Day was arrested for going on a march for women’s right to vote, and even went on hunger strike, but guess what? She never voted once in her life.

Historically, this point doesn’t make much sense either. Just because some people a long time ago thought the right to vote was important doesn’t mean that we have to agree. If anything, we have more right to disagree – we’ve experienced “representative democracy” for years and years, something they never could have done. But even at the time when many people didn’t hold the right to vote, there were people who didn’t see much point in it. For example, feminist Emma Goldman famously said: “If voting changed anything, they’d made it illegal” and “the most advanced students of universal suffrage have come to realize that all existing systems of political power are absurd, and are completely inadequate to meet the pressing issues of life.”

2. “Young people only get treated so bad because they don’t vote”

How do we know it isn’t the other way around – maybe the reason young people don’t vote much is because they get so badly treated? Maybe the people that get treated well by the government, only vote because people like them are best represented anyway? This fallacy is what philosophers call “inferring causation from correlation”. Just because two things happen together or at the same time (“correlation”), doesn’t mean that one of them makes the other happen (“causation”). When two things happen at once (in this case, young people voting less AND getting shafted by the government), we might get the cause and effect the wrong way around. Or, they might not cause each other at all – they might both be getting caused by something else, or just both be happening at the same time by coincidence. If we don’t take this fallacy into account we can use logic to prove all kinds of mad things, for example that global warming is caused by a decline in piracy:

A Graph to Demonstrate the Inverse Correlation Between the Number of Active Pirates, and Global Temperatures

Proof That Dead Pirates Cause Global Warming! I think the link here is pretty clear…

We also have to ask, if the ‘young person’ vote is so insignificant, then why in the 2010 general erection did liberal democrat politicians put so much effort into assuring them that they would not raise tuition fees? Letting people take a picture of you pledging to vote against something is risky for any politician, because it makes it easy for people to point out when they don’t do it. The vote wasn’t important enough for many lib-dems to actually follow up on their pledge, however. Given this and a thousand other similar betrayals, does it make sense to say so certainly that young people get shafted by politicians because they don’t vote? Or should we infer that young people don’t vote in the first place BECAUSE they feel that politicians will only betray them? Both of these explanations make sense, after all.

3. “You should vote for my party because it has good policies!”

"I pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees"

Lieberal Democrat leader holding his broken promise up for the camera….

This fallacy is called “begging the question”. If voting changes nothing, why would it matter whether I vote for a party with good policies, or a party with bad policies? It’s like someone saying “we must kill all ducks, right now. If we don’t, then they will keep breeding, so there will be even more of them to deal with!” – which obviously doesn’t make any sense as an argument, because it begs the question “why should we stop the ducks in the first place?”. That’s a mad example, but it’s not mad to say that good policies are no guarantee of good actions. Just look at all the Liberal Democrats in 2010 who broke their pledges to vote against tuition fee rises! (to be fair, I should mention that Labour did the same when introducing them in the first place)

Even if you do trust the party in question to keep election promises, it’s also fair to ask whether they will really be able to. The rich have the economic power to influence whoever is in government. If they demand that the government do something, will they be able to refuse? There is also the possibility of a coup. It may sound far-fetched, but this is something that has actually happened in the past. For example in 1936 in Spain, where a military revolt lead to the removal of a democratically elected government, who were replaced by dictator named General Franco (who ruled until 1975). US-backed coups to install right-wing regimes are well documented (for example, Augusto Pinochet of Chile). There is some evidence of a plan to remove Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson from government in the 70’s, if industrial unrest became too dangerous for the ruling class ( source: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/4789060.stm ). So this objection isn’t unreasonable, and isn’t accounted for by the “you should vote for my party because we will be different” argument. Even if a party really will try to make radial changes, that doesn’t mean that they can.

4. “We have to stop…. getting (back) in!”

This argument also uses the fallacy of “begging the question” – it assumes the very thing it is trying to prove right from the start. If I believe that voting makes a difference then yes, of course I would be convinced of voting (say, for Labour), in order to stop another party (say, the Tories) getting in! But that isn’t the point. If voting DOESN’T change things (which is what this whole debate is about), then stopping one party or another getting elected isn’t really such a good reason at all. What if I believe that the elected party will not have any real power anyway? What if I believe that whatever party is elected, they will only do what the rich ask of them? What if I doubt whether the ‘good’ party really intends to be any different in the first place? These are all reasons people give for not voting, and they all undermine the argument that voting is necessary in order to stop ‘bad’ parties gaining power.

The idea that a ‘good’ party can only influence things if they get elected and will do nothing if not, is also a bit misleading – the situation is more complex than that. (This is what philosophers call a “false dichotomy”). For example someone who is against voting might point out in the example above, that even if the Tories would do more damage than Labour if elected, in the event of a Tory election victory any Labour supporters would help us resist Tory actions (being in opposition and therefore free to contradict those in power). This is at least credible – it’s something I’ve seen happen at first hand, with young Labour students at a university. They did very useful organising work during strikes for a while, only to disappear as soon as a local election came around. So, even if one party might use power better than another, that still doesn’t mean that voting for them is the best thing to do, because how they would use power isn’t the only thing we need to think about. When out of power, they might be able to help us even more.


Nothing written here is enough to show that people shouldn’t vote – maybe I’ll write about that another time. What it does show is that the main arguments of people who support ‘representative’ democracy are not only factually wrong but fundamentally flawed. I think the fact that they rely on blatant fallacies to persuade us to support their system speaks for itself. If they rely on tricks rather than real arguments, doesn’t that suggest that they only care about getting us to passively obey, and not about changing things for the better? Maybe. But then, that’s just speculation…

Final note: Please feel free to copy/re-print/plagiarize this article how ever you like.


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