In a few days’ time I’ll have the opportunity to exercise my right to vote in the United States; I am a dual national and retain the right and privilege of voting in America and the UK. (I am writing this LabourList dispatch from my mom’s front room in New Jersey).
I’ll be voting for Governor, a slew of Senators and State Representatives, a Sheriff, a few Freeholders, a Mayor, and the local Board of Education. Not to mention two statewide referenda: whether to raise the minimum wage with annual cost of living increases, and whether war veterans organizations can profit from gambling revenue – more bingo than one armed bandits. Every time I go to the ballot box- in the UK or USA- I get a whoosh of excitement to be playing my part in the democratic process.
But if you believe Russell Brand, I’m naïve and furthering my own oppression.
If you didn’t see Russell being interviewed by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight recently, get yourself straight on to YouTube- it has over 8.5 million hits already. The chat was part car crash and part bloody brilliant. Some have been proclaiming Brand a self obsessed crackpot- hardly an insult as I’m sure he is likely to agree. But there were some bon mots buried in his Byronesque bile. His passionate observation of the massive corporate and economic exploitation we witness but do nothing to combat was profound.
Challenging Brand’s bravado call for the revolution, Paxo snorted “You can’t even be arsed to vote”, and Brand responded that voting is a sign of complicity with the system and that in fact he had NEVER voted in his life. My heart sank deeper than Russell’s pockets. I believe we need rabble rousers like Rusty; but his refusal to vote made me lose all respect for him.
Living in a democracy affords us incredible rights; but what are we obliged to do in return? Voting is the very least we can demand of ourselves and fellow citizens. While I’m not advocating compulsory voting, we do need to create conditions that encourage people to vote. But how?
Labour’s promise to lower the voting age to 16 is a smart and timely move. 16 and 17 year olds in the capital will most likely be able to vote in Labour’s London Mayoral Primary; the sooner we extend this across the country, the better. We need to be encouraging young people to be part of the political process and know that their contribution is important to the future of the nation. How can we expect young people to be excited by politics if they feel- and literally are- disenfranchised?
Voter registration should be integrated into citizenship education in school. In high schools across the America, students in their final year are registered to vote as part of history lessons. We know that voter turnouts are low among young people, and voting is a habit- those who vote once are much more likely to carry on voting throughout their life. Why not make voting compulsory for first timers?
We should also look at different ways of voting. A secure, online system is surely possible. If we can do almost every other essential life task online, why not voting? Postal votes seem positively archaic, and are often misunderstood. We need a 21st century ballot box for 21st century politics.
We also need a new politics. As Mark Ferguson wrote on LabourList earlier this week, the need to widen the political gene pool is urgent. By attracting young people through compulsory political education and a younger voting age, more youngsters from diverse backgrounds may consider it as a career option. By encouraging – and entrusting- young people to take part in their future, we can bash through archaic political privilege and create a mass of engaged young people armed with citizenship education and a voter registration card.
Now that’s what I call a revolution.