How important a right is vote?

Professor Richard Shaw, a professor of politics at Massey University, in an article looking at decreased turnout in general elections, characterised the franchise (vote) as the “most fundamental of citizenship rights”.

Liam Hehir at Stuff: Voting is important, but is it more important than other civil rights?

I’m not sure that’s quite right.

Imagine that you had to choose one of the following sets of rights to be stripped away from you:

  • The right to hold property secure from unjust government confiscation.
  • The right to choose your own career and to not be compelled to work against your will.
  • The right to live where you want, use public spaces and travel freely along the roads.
  • The right to be free from arbitrary arrest and to have the protections of proper criminal procedure.
  • The right to have one 2.5-millionth of an indirect say in the selection of the prime minister once every three years.

Some sort of universal voting rights are important in a modern democracy but how important?

A universal franchise is a recent thing. International history:

The Magna Carta is rightly seen as an important development for our liberal political life. And yet while it covered taxation, access to forests, the right to trial by jury and the protection of other customary liberties, there is nothing in it about electing the Government.

The same goes for the Petition of Right in 1628 and the Bill of Rights 1688. Both of these set out all kinds of rights that were considered essential liberties. Like the Magna Carta, these laws are considered so fundamental that they remain in force under New Zealand law to this day. But they don’t say anything about a guaranteed franchise.

Over time, these privileges accumulated into an informal body of rights that the legal scholar William Blackstone called “the Fundamental Laws of England”. In pre-independence America, they often went by the name “the Rights of Englishmen”. When colonial Americans felt these rights were being infringed, they declared independence.

By this time, the idea of rule with the consent of the governed was gaining ground. But it is easy to overstate just how much the American Revolution was really about democracy. For many of the Founding Fathers, the very word was synonymous with “mob rule” – something to be feared. It is no coincidence that the US constitution, despite its elaborate checks and balances, enshrines no explicit right to vote.

New Zealand history:

When this country was founded in 1840, the inhabitants were promised all the rights of British subjects. But that promise did not extend to any guaranteed voting rights, because British subjects did not enjoy such rights.

Indeed, it was not until 1853 that we had our first general election.

Even then, the franchise was limited to non-imprisoned men over the age of 21  owning a certain amount of property.

From NZ History: Political and constitutional timeline

Now in the 21st century, with reducing voter turnout, an increasing number of people seem to not think much of their right to vote.

How important is voting?

Leave a comment


  1. Brown

     /  30th May 2017

    “Even then, the franchise was limited to non-imprisoned men over the age of 21 owning a certain amount of property.”

    And smart it was to exclude a certain demographic. In my view you should not be able to vote unless you are a net tax payer. We are fortunate that a large chunk of the nett consumers can’t be bothered to vote.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  1st June 2017

      You seem to assume that women don’t own property and pay taxes.Is this the demographic that you would exclude ? It sounds like it.

  2. Gezza

     /  30th May 2017

    One adult, one vote – the idea that governments should only govern with the consent of the governed – is now such an accepted & enshrined fundamental principle of democracy that it should & will never be abandoned or the plebs will end up being impoverished by the wealthy & propertied classes, avaricious oligarchs, & corporations who recognise no allegiance or obligations to any others but themselves in society.

    It is far better for everyone to have the right to vote & not exercise it than to limit it to only the wealthy & entitled of our society. The best solution not enough people voting are education on civics & history, especially the development of one person, one vote, and better opposition parties who we can swap the incumbent government for if & when their policies eventually make enough ordinary people’s lives worse instead of better.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  1st June 2017

      Many of the English suffragettes only wanted female suffrage on the same grounds as men-no plebs allowed. This is one of the things that tends to be whitewashed over now.

  3. I have upvoted both Brown and Gezza as I believe Brown’s notion that voting by certain demographics is clearly not beneficial to the running of a country, but I think Gezza’s implementation of that is more subtle and effective. It also provides a litmus test of the relationship between voters and politicians.

    Politicians invariably blame low voter turnout on “public apathy” when in truth it can be more accurately, effectively ascribed to “political apathy”: ie it tells us that the range of options available to the voters is so poor and indistinguishable that they see little point in choosing one over the other. A stark illustration of this came in the first elections for the European Parliament when the turnout in Liverpool, England was, I believe, about 7%.

    What I think can be beneficial in such circumstances is a candidate who is so plainly unsuited to governance that a vote for him is a clear signal of dissatisfaction with the Establishment. We had, in my early days in England, just such a one in Screaming Lord Sutch (ex-pop singer) and his Monster Raving Loony party. He never won anything, despite his outrageous garb and top hat, but his percentage spoke volumes to those sensible enough to listen.

    This is a much healthier and more useful option than compulsory voting, so often resorted to by politicians who want to pretend that everyone is interested in voting. To my mind, being forced to vote is not only worse than useless as a solution to low turnout, it is almost as unethical as being prevented from voting. As Gezza noted, the best solution to low voter turnout is a good, strong Opposition. In this sense, one could argue that in a healthy democracy the Opposition is actually more important than the Government. The latter’s role essentially is just to ‘keep the buses running and the streets clean’ while the former’s job is to ensure that they do so, on pain of being sacked.

  4. PDB

     /  30th May 2017

    The right to vote is important and in turn the right NOT to vote is also important.

    “You don’t vote? You’re not alone. Tens of millions of American adults don’t take part in elections, and most of them have perfectly good reasons for abstaining. In 2014, according to the US Census Bureau, 28 percent of nonvoters said they were too busy with other things, and 10 percent were out of town. Another 16 percent weren’t interested in the election, and 8 percent didn’t vote because they didn’t like the candidates or the issues.

    Every citizen has the right to vote, but no citizen is obliged to. That isn’t just a truism. As with every other fundamental civic liberty, the freedom to vote incorporates the freedom not to vote. By guaranteeing your right to attend a church, to own a weapon, or to march in a protest, the Constitution simultaneously guarantees your right not to do those things — even if do-gooders, busybodies, or community organizers insist that you should.

    When your car needs fixing, you want someone knowledgeable about auto mechanics to diagnose the problem; when a weighty medical decision has to be made, you probably wouldn’t turn to inexperienced laymen to make it. The crafting of government policy — of tax law and defense budgets and judicial nominations and trade regulations — is at least as serious an endeavor as surgery and car repair. Many people, for wholly legitimate and understandable reasons, give no thought to governmental affairs. Fine, but why hector them to vote? If anything, they should be reassured that it’s OK if they don’t vote.

    Besides, refusing to vote can also be an affirmative political choice. When candidates are odious, when their campaigns traffic in character-assassination, when election ads are no more than shameless pandering, declining to pull the lever for any of them might well be the response of an engaged and rational voter.

    One recommendation: “Stop encouraging people who don’t want to vote to vote.” Low voter turnout, Abdul-Jabbar writes, is “not necessarily a bad thing” if it reflects the nonparticipation of Americans who tune politics out. He doesn’t sugar-coat the point: “Voters who don’t want to cast a ballot because they’re too lazy or uninformed should stay home. . . . When we pressure people to vote, we’re diluting the democratic process, by bringing out those who are easily manipulated.”

    There is nothing wrong with not caring about politics, or with having better things to do than vote. There is something wrong with turning the franchise into a fetish. Voter turnout is not the acid test of democratic health, and nothing is improved when we go to extremes to coax nonvoters to the polls. “Some of these people really shouldn’t vote,” says Abdul-Jabbar. “People that are voting in the blind are doing a disservice to our country.”

    On Election Day, staying away from the polls is also a legitimate option. For millions of Americans, it’s the best one”.

    • Kitty Catkin

       /  1st June 2017

      If you don’t vote, don’t complain about the result.

      I know a man who doesn’t vote as a protest (yes, the returning officers will know that and be interested-I don’t think) He lives on Super handed out by the government, of course, his principles don’t extend to refusing it. He has so little idea of how government works that he once said that list MPs and candidates were there as the result of favours called in and that list MPs did nothing but collect their salaries. The candidates, of course, did nothing either. .As someone who was married to a candidate and knew quite a few others and what they did in the campaign, not to mention knowing some MPs and Ministers, I swiftly and forcefully disabused him of this absurd notion. I remember saying that if that was Roger Douglas’s* idea of a bloody favour (after a detailed description of what my husband and the others were doing) then I hoped that he’d never bloody well decide to do ME a favour. There was a petrified silence; I was so obviously furious that the others thought that I was going to land ***** one. I have never been so close to doing this to someone.How I managed not to say anything worse than ‘bloody’ is a mystery.

      * he asked my old man to put his name on the list. It was a lot of fun and a lot of hard work and I wouldn’t have missed it.


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