Project team members' recollections of their most memorable elections.
A t each and every exercise of my voting rights, I shiver. It has been like that since I cast my very first vote in the Italian general elections in 1996. Italy had just awakened from years of blind corruption and clientelism during the so-called first republic (“Tangentopoli” was the eye-opener) and was approaching a new time of increased social responsibility and political accountability. History proved these hopes far too high and disappointment inevitably ensued. But being there to share the authority to make this potential change happen was both daunting and exciting; it gave me the shivers of mutual accountability, which have accompanied any electoral moment in my life since and is inspiring my current research in what makes that moment so ethically relevant.
A poignant memory of mine that bears on voting is from when I was planning to vote for the first time in my life, but was denied participation. I had just moved to Sweden to go university and thought I would be able to vote for the first time ever in the parliamentary election that would take place shortly after my move. But having grown up as an expatriate, I had never been registered on the electoral roll and by the time I arrived in Sweden, it was too late for me to be registered. As a result, I was unable to vote in that election and I was deeply frustrated, thinking that I had unfairly been denied my right. However, with time I have to come see this episode as evidence that elections presuppose a whole set of strict rules and procedures, and that underneath any election, there is a legal and institutional infrastructure that is both extremely intricate and profoundly influences the electoral process as well as citizens’ concrete experience of it.
M y most vivid memories of elections don’t come from the experience of voting itself, because I have generally lived in seats where the incumbent had an unassailable majority and because, living abroad, I was going to have to vote by mail, rather than in person. But my earliest memories of elections are as a child of a Labour MP for Manchester. My father, Harold Lever, was, amazingly, an MP from 1945 to 1979, and a Cabinet Minister. Memories of campaign photos, of Bingo halls, orange squash and peanuts; of hand-shaking, nodding and curtseying; of yellow and red rosettes, and voices bellowing ‘Vote Lever, Vote Labour’; of my father explaining why he supported the EU (and had even resigned from the Shadow Cabinet over the issue) to his constituents. As I realised years later, their willingness to vote for him was never in doubt (his seat was solidly Labour and he was personally popular), but he clearly thought that irrelevant to electoral duties as their MP, and as a candidate for re-election. It seems to me that he was right in this: that his duties to explain were not reducible to how his constituents were likely to vote, or how likely they were to vote at all. That memory therefore plays its part in my aversion to compulsory voting, proponent of which tend to focus exclusively on the supposed duties of voters, (many of whom can do little if anything to shape electoral outcomes), while ignoring the duties of candidates and Parties to explain, persuade and mobilise constituents whose trust they claim to deserve.
H ere is an angle of voting that I think we should not forget. In many occasions, we vote and we don't love any of the alternative candidates/parties or their proposals. Quite often, indeed, we vote against certain options, rather than in favor of one. But that's perfectly acceptable. All our life choices are made out of a limited range of options, most of which are far from ideal. And political choices are not any different. It's the fact that we vote for them what makes them special, and helps to renew political cycles. So even if the political power we have through our individual voting is very limited, even if the alternatives do not look fantastic, our choice is an act of individual political autonomy that must be exercised with great responsibility. Here I like Philip Pettit's metaphor of democratic power as a huge billiard ball that is pushed by millions of us, each enjoying the same strength and having exactly the same chance to impose some direction. Our individual capacity to determine the direction of the ball is tiny. And different people may push on different directions. But if the system is rightly designed, we are all necessary, we should all have the same capacity to contribute (our fair share in the task of rolling the ball), and we will be all collectively able to make the ball roll and impose certain direction to it.
I n Italy we have an “electoral card” that gets stamped every time you participate in elections (at any level: national, local, or European). Last time I went to vote there was no room left for a new stamp, and that’s how I realized that I never missed an election since I have that card. Why am I such a serial voter? If I had to give a simple answer, I would say it is because I feel that voting is important.
I first voted in a national election while a student. In the UK we have a first-past-the-post system, and I was living at the time in a marginal constituency. Realistically, I was not enthusiastic about the policies or positions of either party that stood a chance where I lived. But I didn’t want my vote to go to waste, so voted tactically. Even though I ended up disappointed by the direction that party took, I don’t regret that decision. But my first experience of voting did make me question – at the time - whether there was much point in voting or getting involved in political campaigning, and indeed whether UK democracy operates effectively. It also meant I didn’t look in detail at the other parties’ offers as I didn’t see the benefit of doing so.
M y most interesting electoral experience? Well, once I didn’t vote, but felt like I won. It was November 2018. I was 20 and I had not yet been able to vote for any democratic elections. I was in the U.S. on a study abroad scheme. Not a U.S. citizen, I nevertheless got a taste of what it is to be a voter. A friend from university took me on a road trip to his home-city of Philadelphia. I joined him as he was going door-to-door to dispatch leaflets for the Democrats. We were not always well received. One lady yelled at us that Obama was a Muslim! On election day, I even joined my friend inside the polling station and saw him select the ballot (we had the benevolent approval of the public official overseeing the election, but to this day I remain unclear of the legality of this). And weeks later, on a snowy and freezing day in Baltimore, I experienced the excitement and the pain of an interminable queue to see the victorious Barack Obama for real, right before the inauguration! I didn’t vote, I never had, but I felt like his triumphant victory was also mine.
M y first electoral and democratic experience was extraordinarily disappointing. In 1990, I was 14 years old and took part in electoral rallies of a non-ethnic party in the context of the first post-WW2 elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Most people I knew, or at least those living within my own Sarajevo bubble, said they were against ethnic parties. Even opinion surveys confirmed that eight out of ten citizens of Bosnia opposed ethnic parties. And yet 75% of citizens ended up voting for them. One possible explanation is that voters from the three main ethnic groups faced ethical dilemmas typical of the prisoner’s dilemma game. Their decision was perhaps “rational” at the individual level, but it produced a collective catastrophe. Many years later, I tried to make sense of that experience in a scholarly article entitled “When non-nationalist voters support ethno-nationalist parties: the 1990 elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina as a prisoner’s dilemma game” (Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 2014).
O ne interesting electoral experience which I recall was during the 2019 Romanian elections for the European Parliament. I was in Prague for a conference where, incidentally, I talked about the desirability of having compulsory voting in Central and Eastern European countries. Therefore, I had to go to the Romanian embassy, where I spent around 5 hours in line in order to be able to cast a vote. This was an interesting experience for three reasons. First, in the previous EP elections (held in 2014) I had a radically different view on voting, grounded in the standard instrumentalist case for not voting within public choice theory, which led me to refrain from voting even though it would have been much less costly. Second, while queuing in line I was actually reading papers for the chapter of my book in which I discuss a series of arguments in favour of a duty not to vote. Third, while the queuing itself was uneventful, there was a fascinating type of solidarity developing amongst the individuals involved. For instance, some people would buy 2L bottles of water and plastic cups and leave them on the sidewalk for thirsty people to drink from. Curious people who saw the line on the sidewalk came to inquire into why it was there, usually following up with congratulatory reactions. And the people in line, who were complete strangers otherwise, were encouraging each other not to give up and abandon the line despite not knowing how the others would vote (even though profanities against the ruling party at that time – who was responsible for organizing the elections – were occasionally shouted).