Reading the Irish Times yesterday at the close of polling stations, there was a quote from a voter:
“I didn’t get the booklet, so I don’t really understand what it is all about. I voted no, because I am not going to vote yes for something I don’t understand.”
These two sentences highlight many of the problems with Irish democracy at the moment. We have an electorate who don’t understand the issues being presented to them, who quite often don’t care enough to educate themselves any better, yet think that voting is still okay in these circumstances.
Let’s deal with the lack of knowledge about the electoral issues firstly. The campaigns for the Yes and No side of the Fiscal Compact and the Lisbon treaty in 2007 are great examples of what happens when campaigners try to reduce complex legal treaties down to simple slogans and catchphrases. They often ignore the contents of the treaty and talk about possible consequences, often relying upon scare tactics and broad references to a better tomorrow or ominous points about neoliberalism. Here is the thing, these people are trying to get you to vote for their choice by reducing the debate down to your fears and your hopes. So here’s a suggestion, if you don’t know what the issue you are voting on actually entails beyond the slogans and the loudest voices in the media, get out there and educate yourself. The decision you make does not just affect you, it affects every other person in the country for the foreseeable future. You owe it to them and even the hypothetical concept of your democracy to make decisions based on good information which has been critically accessed and weighed up against the opposing view.
We’ve also seen this trend before with general elections in Ireland. Every election year in every constituency, there is invariably a group of people who will support and vote for the local Fianna Fáil candidate/ Jackie Healy Rae/ Michael Lowry type of politician because he does great things for the area, but yet deplore the policies they represent in the Dáil. However voting for those representatives gives their policies and decisions legitimacy.
Furthermore, whether you vote yes or no, you are voting in favour of a side. When you vote no, you are positively asserting an opposition to the legislation outlined in the Fiscal Compact and possible asserting an agreement with the assertions of David McWilliams, Sinn Féin, United Left Alliance and their ilk, rather than saying you don’t understand the treaty. The choice you make when you vote, regardless of what it is, actually does have consequences and especially when the No side of a referendum is a large-scale rejection of the status quo, it is even more important not to vote no because you don’t understand the contents and implications of a treaty. The quality of a democracy relies upon voters who have taken their responsibility to inform themselves before they vote, or to choose not to vote if there are issues they don’t understand or when they can’t make their minds up.