Opinion | Umm Abdillah | 2016.07.29, 24 Shawaal 1436 H
Election day is next week and campaigning permission has drawn to a close. Ever since non-whites have been given the right to vote in South Africa, the exact same conversations of legality, permissibly, inclusion, and participation, floats around Muslim dinner tables and lounges. So this time I’m asking: If a citizen doesn’t stand a chance of having her vote affect the outcome, why does she bother to vote anyway? Are we South Africans any different to the rest of the world in this regard?
We’ve tediously asked and answered voting questions, and covered all bases. Yes, it is permissible to vote in the Shariah, Yes, Muslims should cooperate with others to promote good for everyone. Yes, Democracy as it stands with the vote system is flawed, but it is the best of worse alternatives. Yes, political participation is a necessary part of survival. Yes, we have to vote for the least of all evils.
Yet, in a working paper called “Voting to Tell Others” researchers have found there may be other incentives to vote that we’re too shy to discuss.
The researchers argue that social image plays a significant role in explaining voter turnout. People vote because others will ask, and the expectation of being asked whether or not they voted motivated their actions. In the experiment, individuals derived pride from telling others that they voted, or felt shame from admitting that they did not vote, provided that lying is costly. A field experiment was conducted to estimate the effect of social image concerns on voting. The findings in a nutshell:
“Our estimates suggest significant social image concerns. For a plausible range of lying costs, we estimate the monetary value of voting `because others will ask' to be in the range of $5-$15 for the 2010 Congressional election. In a complementary get-out-the-vote experiment, we inform potential voters before the election that we will ask them later whether they voted. We find suggestive evidence that the treatment increases turnout.”
The authors of "Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything" who agree with the above, viz. that a single vote does not matter argue the matter differently. They say:
“Perhaps we vote in the same spirit in which we buy lottery tickets. After all, your chances of winning a lottery and of affecting an election are pretty similar. From a financial perspective, playing the lottery is a bad investment. But it's fun and relatively cheap: for the price of a ticket, you buy the right to fantasize how you'd spend the winnings -- much as you get to fantasize that your vote will have some impact on policy.”
Here in South Africa I’d hazard a guess (especially of late) we have been socialised into the voting-as-civic-duty idea, believing that it's a good thing for Muslim society if our community votes. And maybe we’d even feel guilty for not voting. But, I’d be wary to leave it at that. There is way more than just a vote, election reporting or election outcomes that counts. Civil society incentives, caring about making South Africa a better place for all her people, charity-driven endowments, and yes, engagement with government leadership – it all counts. Our leaders are only as good or as bad as we allow them to be, and that means we have to keep feeding and ploughing our earth, (and praying) to yield good fruit.