Is it worth voting? (First past the post systems)

This debate is specific to first past the post systems (FPTP) such and the United Kingdom and the United States. Some of the arguments will work for other more proportional systems but others won’t as a more proportional system is one potential way of making it more worthwhile for an individual to vote in order to make their vote count. FPTP simply asks people to put a mark against the person they prefer. For a candidate to win under FPTP, they have to get more votes than any other candidate, meaning one may be declared the winner with less than 50% of the votes. As a result it is often argued that voting makes very little difference. First a great many people don’t vote for the candidate who wins as they vote for one of the opposition parties or else don’t vote at all. Then they are only voting for one member of parliament among hundreds, and to make matters worse their representative may not even be in the governing party so may have little opportunity to get through anything they voted for. Finally there is the question of whether the government actually pays attention either to the individual MPs or to their own promises perhaps they instead simply listen to vested interests and lobbyists.[1] As an individual in a nation of millions is it worth voting?

p.s. if you want a motion it would be ‘This House believes it is worth voting in a first past the post system’.

[1] Wellings, Richard, ‘Is it worth voting?’, iea Institute of Economic Affairs, 6 May 2010


Civic duty

Voting is a civic duty, just as paying taxes and jury service. As a citizen of your nation it is your duty to take thirty minutes out of your day every few years to go and vote in an election. This duty is not a very onerous one but it is an important one because the foundation of our government is that it is democratic, and how can it be democratic if the people won’t vote? If the government is to represent the people the people must vote for it. Some civic duties such as taxes are compulsory and while it is not the case that voting is compulsory in the UK and USA it is elsewhere for example Australia and Belgium.[1] That it is not compulsory is consistent with our freedoms so there is the possibility of making the active choice not to vote. With the right to vote comes the responsibility to use it.

[1] ‘Compulsory Voting’, Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, updated 21 March 2012 also see our debate on compulsory voting


Many voters are making an active choice when they decide not to vote, they are either showing that they recognise how little impact their vote will have, or else that they do not believe that it is worth their while spending the time to vote.[1] Finally even if they are not making an active choice not to vote and don’t vote due to ignorance is that really a dereliction of their civic duty? Does it not show that politics, politicians, and parties have not done enough to engage with these voters and tell them why, when and where they can vote? It should be up to politicians to persuade us that they are worthy of our votes.

[1] Caryl, Christian, ‘In Praise of Apathy’, Foreign Policy, 24 October 2012

Hold politicians to account

For the most part in countries with FPTP we don’t like our politicians. In the United States Congress has a job approval rate of 21% and it is often lower[1] while in the UK in 2009 only 1% were ‘very satisfied’ with MPs (total of 29% satisfied 44% dissatisfied).[2] Well elections are your chance to hold them to account by voting for someone else. Elected politicians are there to represent you but if you don’t vote your voice wont be heard and you wont be able to hold your representative to account for what they have done during their time in office. There are increasingly websites which will show you how your MP voted making it simple to find out if they are representing you as you would wish and so making it possible to decide how you will vote on the basis of your representative’s record rather than just their stated intentions at the time of the election.

[1] Jones, Jeffrey M., ‘U.S. Congress’ Approval Rating at 21% Ahead of Elections’, Gallup Politics, 24 October 2012

[2] ‘Satisfaction with Members of Parliament 1991-2009’, Ipsos MORI, 4 March 2010, (NB satisfaction with own MP is always higher)


I am only one of thousands of voters who elect my MP so my vote is not going to help hold ‘my’ representative to account. In the UK the average number of voters in each constituency is 68,175[1] and some have majorities of tens of thousands. In the US House of Representatives the figure is more than ten times this number at 710,767[2] with so many other voters how will my attempt to hold them to account actually matter?

[1] ‘Parliamentary constituencies’,

[2] Burnett, Kristin D., ‘Congressional Apportionment’, 2010 Census Briefs, November 2011

No right to complain

We all complain, whether it is about the lack of places for schools, higher university fees, trains not running on time, or about how we are being ripped off by the shops. In almost every case the things we may complain about can be influenced by the government either directly as with education policy or indirectly through taxation or regulation. Voting is your one chance to show what agenda you want to government to take; do you want more regulation or less, do you want tuition fees paid by the government or individuals? Of course not everything will be contested in every election but some will be. But next time you complain about something if it actually matters find a party that wants to do something about it and vote for them.


The idea that someone who has voted might be more entitled to complain about things is absurd. Yes they have shown how they want the government to run but the idea that their voice is heard on all these particular issues is patently silly. 

We don’t just vote for ourselves

You are very lucky that you have the chance to vote to choose and influence your government. Most people throughout history have not had this chance; in the UK women only received the vote in 1918 and most men only received the right in the nineteenth century.[1] In the United States the timings were similar with freed slaves not voting until 1970 (even in 1940 only 3% of African Americans in the south were registered) and women not until 1919.[2] We should remember the sacrifices of all those who have fought for the right to vote. Moreover huge numbers of people live in countries where these rights have not yet been won – just think of the 1.3 billion people in China who have no input into the change in the leadership, the Politburo Standing Committee, every ten years.[3] As voting has not been an automatic right throughout history you need to vote not just for yourself but for your children and their children in order to ensure that they have the benefit of growing up in a democracy such as the one you live in.

[1] ‘Chartists Key dates’,

[2] ‘Timeline: Voting Rights Act’, American Civil Liberties Union

[3] Li, Cheng, ‘The Battle for China’s Top Nine Leadership Posts’, The Washington Quarterly, Vol.35, No.1, pp.131-145, Winter 2012


The question here then essentially lies in do we appreciate our democracy? Does voting every 5 years actually count as a democracy? Does the fact that we have a first past the post system represent our views as a democracy should? The history of voting and the ability of other around the world to vote really has very little bearing on whether we should vote. Voting for the one party, or an other, or none at all is not going to result in me not being able to vote in the future. If losing the vote becomes a real possibility in the future then we can be sure that many currently apathetic voters will turn out because such a vote really would matter.

Have your say

Democracy allows you to have your say and it is important you take advantage of that. It is unusual that your particular vote will make an immense difference but just occasionally it might make all the difference. Barak Obama’s 2012 campaign is running an ad called 537 the ad says this is "the difference between what was and what could have been.” As it is the number of votes that won the Presidency for George W. Bush over Al Gore in Florida in 2000. “So this year if you're thinking that your vote doesn't count, that it won't matter, well, back then there were probably 537 people who felt the same way. Make your voice heard."[1] There will always be places where there are victories by such a small margin. Most of the time it will be known where these marginal contests are but if enough people who have not voted in the past vote previous votes or the pollsters may count for nothing. You never know it might be you who makes the difference, so go vote!

[1] Rama, Padmananda, ‘Obama Campaign Invokes ‘537’ To Get Out The Vote’, NPR, 24 October 2012


The chances of you being the one who matters in a marginal contest are infinitesimally small. First most elections are not won on narrow margins and second you are unlikely to be in the right place at the right time. The FPTP system means that very few votes actually matter like this unlike in a proportional system where almost every vote would have a very similar worth. 

My vote does not count

In safe seats, indeed right across the country there will be millions of votes that will not count when everything is added up because of our first past the post system.[1] Essentially the system means that all the votes that are cast for those who are not the winning candidate do not count at all. In a safe seat there is no way a single vote is going to help overturn some of the immense majorities the party in power has, they could put a monkey for election in these seats and it would still get in.

[1] In the UK take a look at the voter power index to see how worthwhile or otherwise your vote is


This is nearly always not actually a reason not to vote as because in almost every constituency the number of people who do not vote outnumbers the vote of the winning party this means if everyone who does not vote did as you will do and all get out and vote the vote could go any way, even a fringe party could be elected if the non-voters vote together. To illustrate lets take a look at Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, one of the safest seats in the UK, former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s seat. In 2010 Labour won with 65.2% of the vote,[1] with 29559 labour votes compared to 6550 SNP a majority of 23009.[2] However in this seat turnout was only 62.2% that means that 27863 people did not vote, considerably more than voted for Labour. If they voted together for someone else those who do not vote could always throw out the party in power. No seat is therefore really a safe seat, they are safe because who believe their vote is not worthwhile do not bother to vote when in reality if they did they could make a difference. Indeed in the Scottish elections of 2011 the SNP managed to take a large part of this same seat.[3]

[1] Electoral Calculus, Majority Sorted Seats

[2] Wells, Anthony, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, UKPollingReport, 2010

[3] ‘Vote 2011 Scotland elections, Kirkcaldy’, BBC News, 11 May 2011

Politicians don’t engage with issues that are important to me

Political parties are not about issues, they are either about ideologies or are purely about trying to triangulate on enough issues so that they can get into power. With relatively few parties able to get representation in the Parliament how can I be sure that my views on issues will be represented. If I want isolationism then who should I vote for in the US election? Both candidates say they want similar policies which are not at all isolationist.[1] Often there is little choice; in the US there are only two real options, the democrats and the republicans,[2] while in the UK all three main parties occupy very similar ground in the centre.[3] The problem is similar if I am interested in multiple issues but no party has a similar portfolio of views.

[1] Helling, Alex, ‘The debate for the rest of the world’,, 23 October 2012

[2] Caryl, Christian, ‘In Praise of Apathy’, Foreign Policy, 24 October 2012

[3] Parker, George, and Pickard, Jim, ‘Centre prize: why UK political parties look more and more the same’, Financial Times, 4 March 2008


Parties go to the centre because that is where the votes are. You are perfectly at liberty to vote for more minor parties. If you want nationalisation vote communist, clean energy vote green etc. Your vote may not elect a representative but the person who becomes your representative is likely to see which single issue parties received votes in his constituency and act accordingly. Ultimately only one party can govern at a time so it will never be the case that everyone can get their way on the issues they are interested in, but if you don’t vote no one will pay any attention at all.

Politicians will simply ignore how we vote

Even if I do vote who is to say that politicians will actually listen to what I say. A lot of government policy is responding to events, no one who voted for Tony Blair in 2005 voted for bail outs of banks in 2008 by what was then a new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who had not even faced the electorate. Moreover political parties do not seem to feel that they are tied to their own manifestos. In the United States Obama promised to close Guantanamo yet it is still open.[1] In the UK the Liberal Democrats said in their manifesto they would not raise tuition fees for UK Universities yet this is exactly what they did when they got into government.[2]

[1] Negrin, Matt, ‘Guantanamo Bay: Still Open, Despite Promises’, ABC News, 3 July 2012, also follow our Securing Liberty blog for updates on Guantanamo Bay and other civil liberties issues:

[2] Robinson, Nick, ‘Senior Lib Dems apologise over tuition fees pledge’, BBC News, 20 September 2012


Yes politicians will sometimes break their promises or for some reason not be able to fulfil them. When the Liberal Democrats made their manifesto they did not expect to be in coalition with the Conservatives, with two incompatible manifestos some things were going to have to be dropped. Equally sometimes the party in power will find they can’t get through the changes they want. The point of voting when events might overtake a manifesto is that the party’s ideology will tell you how they are likely to react – a libertarian in 10 Downing Street would have let the banks go bust or a communist would have nationalised them. Many could have anticipated that a Labour government would engage in some kind of bail out to save savers and the system. By having voted for the Labour party voters were saying they wanted a slightly left of centre response to events.

Not voting is voicing an opinion that is as important as any vote

In both the UK and the US non voters are the biggest block in the country. Governments are routinely voted in with only 30% of the eligible voters – and once it is counted compared against the total population it becomes lower still. We should therefore not assume that these people are all not trying to tell us anything rather they are pointing out that they know how little their vote counts so see no point in casting it. In the United States only 32% of voters agree that only having two parties is good. The non-voters could well therefore be telling us that there needs to be a radical change in the system before it is worth their while voting – ‘you make our vote count and we will begin voting again’.[1]

[1] Caryl, Christian, ‘In Praise of Apathy’, Foreign Policy, 24 October 2012


We can never be sure what these apathetic voters are saying because they have not said it – some might want a change in the electoral system, or might rouse themselves to vote if one of the options becomes extreme but this may not be the case. In the UK voters rejected the option of changing the electoral system to the alternative vote[1] which would have been more representative so making their voice matter more in future elections.[2]

[1] Hawkins, Ross, ‘Vote 2011: UK rejects alternative vote’, BBC News, 7 May 2011

[2] Jones, Charlotte R., ‘This House would adopt the alternative vote’, Debatabase, 2011


‘Timeline: Voting Rights Act’, American Civil Liberties Union,

‘Vote 2011 Scotland elections, Kirkcaldy’, BBC News, 11 May 2011,

Burnett, Kristin D., ‘Congressional Apportionment’, 2010 Census Briefs, November 2011,

Caryl, Christian, ‘In Praise of Apathy’, Foreign Policy, 24 October 2012,

Electoral Calculus, Majority Sorted Seats,

Hawkins, Ross, ‘Vote 2011: UK rejects alternative vote’, BBC News, 7 May 2011,

Helling, Alex, ‘The debate for the rest of the world’,, 23 October 2012,

‘Compulsory Voting’, Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, updated 21 March 2012

‘Satisfaction with Members of Parliament 1991-2009’, Ipsos MORI, 4 March 2010,

Jones, Charlotte R., ‘This House would adopt the alternative vote’, Debatabase, 2011,

Jones, Jeffrey M., ‘U.S. Congress’ Approval Rating at 21% Ahead of Elections’, Gallup Politics, 24 October 2012,

Li, Cheng, ‘The Battle for China’s Top Nine Leadership Posts’, The Washington Quarterly, Vol.35, No.1, pp.131-145, Winter 2012,

Negrin, Matt, ‘Guantanamo Bay: Still Open, Despite Promises’, ABC News, 3 July 2012,

Parker, George, and Pickard, Jim, ‘Centre prize: why UK political parties look more and more the same’, Financial Times, 4 March 2008,

‘Chartists Key dates’,,

‘Parliamentary constituencies’,,

Rama, Padmananda, ‘Obama Campaign Invokes ‘537’ To Get Out The Vote’, NPR, 24 October 2012,

Robinson, Nick, ‘Senior Lib Dems apologise over tuition fees pledge’, BBC News, 20 September 2012,

Wellings, Richard, ‘Is it worth voting?’, iea Institute of Economic Affairs, 6 May 2010,

Wells, Anthony, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, UKPollingReport, 2010,


Or log in with...