“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”
— Emma Goldman.
Unlike Emma Goldman I am not an anarchist. I believe in government. My vision of a good society includes a picture of order that cannot be sustained without formal administrative control of the people, as long as it is also by the people. And yet I hear a clear note of truth in the quote above, which is commonly attributed to the famous anarchist activist. Yes, it reflects an underlying cynicism about what our votes are truly worth, but without being cynical at all we can – I believe should – pause and ask ourselves, “What indeed?”
We’re always accusing our politicians of being shrewd with us. Our frequent refrain is that they come to us each election years, buy us, persuade us, deceive us, and then forget us. They are politricktians, no? We feel intellectually insulted. How can they think that they can take us for granted so easily?
And yet it seems that each year their knavery brings success. It is not the fact that they come every four years that bothers me; it is the fact that they are able to so easily ignore the people in the intervening period; that we so easily allow it.
The reality is that for a long time in Ghana votes have been counted without counting much in the long run.
The reality is that for a long time in Ghana votes have been counted without counting much in the long run. We are fed with a single-sided version of democracy: that every time we come out to vote, we express and exercise our greatest powers of citizenship. We are told that voting is the epitome of democratic expression. It is not.
At the very heart of democracy is its philosophical essence, and it is this: that people will always exercise power over other people, and so it had better be exercised aright, and the way to achieve this is to make the powerful accountable to the ones they govern. Accountability is the true essence of democracy, not voting. At its most useful, voting is one forum for this accountability. It is an important one, but – and here’s the important thing – it is insufficient.
After Voting, Go Home (and Sleep)
We are always implored after the polls to go home and watch the counting. The idea is that we should not hunker idly around the polling stations at risk of participating in any spontaneous outbreaks of violence. Well, that’s all well and good. I won’t make too much right now of Tom Stoppard’s insightful observation that “It’s not the voting that’s democracy; it’s the counting” otherwise we might get off track from the point.
The sad reality is that we might as well be told, “Go home and sleep… for the next four years”, for sadly that is exactly what the vast majority of Ghanaians vote. Going home after voting on polling day for most voters is the beginning of a four-year walk away from the task of holding elected officials accountable. And yet if anything is at the root of Africa’s governance issues (and their many derivatives), it is a lack of real accountability on the part of governments.
We go home, we watch the counting, and then we go to sleep on our country. In four years the canvassing sirens will wake us up again. Thomas Jefferson has said – and I’m sure he’s not the only one – that we deserve the governments we elect. This is true not merely because we voted for them; it is true more so because we let them alone to do as they pleased. By voting them into powers we said like Mark Anthony, “Mischief, thou art afoot; take thou what course thou wilt.” And it did.
There is Nothing We Can Do?
Consider these words from a much-admired democrat. They echo the very same notion that we deserve the governments we elect into office. They add, however, the untruth that we must live with the consequences of our voting decisions, powerless to change anything. We must bear the pain until the next election cycle runs its course.
But it is an untruth. Government comes packaged with a whole raft of institutions intended and designed to check and balance the exercise of power. While I concede that there is a limit to how much one can actually influence day to day governance in a country, we must realize that we are not living up to our true capacity to hold governments accountable on very important issues, and yes, even to point the way they should go.
A final thought before I release you to your voting duties. As you vote tomorrow (or today), I invite you to consider voting more than once. Yes, you heard me. Of course I do not mean at the polls themselves, but everyday after that, in active engagement with political leaders on the issues that are important you, your local community, your region, your country, and the larger world. Vote for change everyday, on every issue. How?
- Share positive ideas for resolving the challenges faced by the nation; make sure they reach your elected leaders
- Propose and sponsor bills and policy initiatives you believe are necessary or helpful to national development
- Write open letters to government officials at local and national levels on the issues that are important to you
- Hold town hall meetings with your elected officials
- Mobilize support for the issues you care about through petitions
- Sue government institutions for specific, indictable failings and wrongdoing
Of course, there is much else you can do. It is a long road, certainly, but it must be trod, and there are some good starting points. One of them is the Right to Information Bill, which we must all insist gets passed as soon as all this noisemaking is over.
A Final Word
Very likely you will fall into the same old routine of minding “your own business” until we are at this again in 2020. Prove me wrong.
So why the sore note of cynicism? Well, the sad reality is that many of us will not heed this advice. We will think “Hmm, that’s true”, or “interesting”, or whatever else. Some of us might actually make a year-end resolution to do more. But very likely you will fall into the same old routine of minding “your own business” until we are at this again in 2020. Prove me wrong.
The only way to avowing growing cynicism is to demonstrate that beyond merely being counted successfully at these elections, your vote really does count in terms of the success our nation enjoys over the next four years, and the contribution you make to that success.
I recently made the case on Joy FM’s Super Morning Show that many floating voters never really land. At every election there is a significant faction of good-minded citizens who get lumped in with the apathetic in the “didn’t turn out” bracket. Why do they not vote? I don’t know. Perhaps they are frightened off by old axioms that say you are as culpable for the mess of the nation if you vote for its bad officials. Perhaps they are put off by Plato: “The price good men pay for indifference to public affairs is to be ruled by evil men.” They know they are not indifferent. A few of them, I am sure, have been let in on a well-kept secret: holding leaders accountable everyday is more useful than having your vote counted every four years. Voting is important. But following up on your vote is even more so. And while there are many apathetic voters, there are no apathetic activists.
In the end, Emma Goldman is probably right. The politicians know that your vote truly won’t count beyond determining who is to ignore you for the next four years. But I feel we have a chance to prove her wrong… to prove that we don’t just vote; we care.