Thinking Aloud: Boycotting Votes, What’s the Point?

Mar. 16, 2014 by Darius 

Russian state media is reporting that Crimeans voted “overwhelmingly” to leave Ukraine and join Russia.  The outcome was a foregone conclusion for two reasons.  First of all, the vote was never likely to be particularly free nor fair with Russian troops occupying the region.  Second of all, the opposition decided to boycott the vote.  Why do people still boycott elections?

A boycott is designed to delegitimize the election.  But it generally has the opposite effect: the main party achieves a lopsided voting outcome s without the need to rig the vote.  The boycotting party or parties get no seat at the table.  (One of my favorite quotes since I started writing this blog came at a conference on US politics but is relevant anywhere in the world: “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”)

Instead of boycotting an election, the opposition should make an effort to get their people to the polls.  That leads to one of two outcomes: either the vote is fair, in which case the vote will be substantially closer than it would be otherwise (and, in a parliamentary system, might yield seats), or the vote is rigged.  If the vote is rigged, the more opponents who vote, the easier it will be to document electoral irregularities—casting far more doubt on the legitimacy of the election than a boycott ever could.  (Think of Iran’s 2009 elections and the Green Movement protests that followed because voters believed the election had been stolen.)

Boycotting an election is lazy and can be seen as the electoral equivalent of “taking the Fifth Amendment” in a US courtroom.  Taking the Fifth is a legal option, but many people quickly draw their own conclusions about the defendant’s innocence.  Boycotting an election is a legal option, but many people quickly draw their own conclusions about the opposition’s ability to win at the ballot box.  Far better to work on getting out the vote.

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One Response to Thinking Aloud: Boycotting Votes, What’s the Point?

  1. gentlebenno says:

    I understand where you are coming from since boycotting votes is usually done by people who:
    a) know they will lose
    b) are interested in informing everybody how “corrupt” things are so they can complain later

    But I’m starting to believe that a true boycott is not in place if a true election is not in place. Just because Uncle Vladimir or Uncle Robert hold ‘elections’ does not require any opposition to come out and play. If I was a Tartar in Ukraine, why would I come out to vote against the majority in a rigged election, at the risk of my life and probably my family’s life, just because Vlad decided to hold one under the barrel of a gun?

    This morning the news reported how Ukraine had overwhelmingly ‘voted’ for independence from Ukraine. By any reasonable understanding of the concept, this was not a ‘vote’. They shouldn’t use the word. Likewise, we shouldn’t use the word ‘boycott’ for a situation where there wasn’t an actual ‘vote’. It adds legitimacy to a situation where there clearly is none.

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