The UK general election is nigh. And with it comes an air of weariness: will my vote count? Will it make a difference? Should I bother at all? What do I want from voting?
In 2010, 65.1% of registered voters in Britain made an effort to cast their ballot. Apathetic voters are said to feel alienated from statistical tactics and leadership debates and long instead for policies and outcomes they care about. But perhaps we need to look elsewhere to renew our relationship with the emblematic ritual of western democracies. Let us bring in the arts.
In the run-up to the 2008 US presidential election, Joshua M Stern’s Swing Vote was released in the cinema. In this comedy-drama, Kevin Costner plays Bud Johnson, a good-hearted drifter who gets drunk and thus forgets to go to the ballot box. On his vote, however, the outcome of the election depends. Bud is offered a second chance: in a widely televised debate he confronts the two major candidates directly with his concerns – which are, predictably, those of a diverse American public. With his single vote Bud will change both his life and America’s future.
This is Hollywood, of course. Most of us do not get second chances, let alone a decisive vote. Swing Vote is not about electoral calculations, however, but about human stories. The film builds on a logic that sees elections as invitations for people to engage in “storytelling contests”. Elections are not only the expression of a “general will”, argues Stephen Coleman in How Voters Feel, they offer citizens an opportunity to circulate stories on a more personal level: stories “about who we are and wish to be”.
Voting narratives, whether fictionalised or shared at the breakfast table and on the way to the polling station, reveal how people relate to family and friends, the media and politicians, and to global and local events.
As a physical act, casting a vote in an old-fashioned low-tech voting booth is also felt in many ways. Contrary to common assumptions, voting in a local polling station can be a highly sensory experience. US research has shown that people who vote in schools are more likely to support a school funding initiative – irrespective of their political views or social backgrounds.
Over the past few years, a growing number of film, art and theatre productions have made electoral democracy their subject matter. One of these productions is Fight Night (2013) by the Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed. This immersive play puts audiences through a whole gamut of emotions while they are taken through several rounds of voting to elect their leader.
The play was performed in the UK, Belgium and Australia, but it is not a critique of different electoral systems – Britain’s first-past-the-post, Belgium’s proportional representation and Australia’s preferential vote. Rather it uncovers our inability as both audience members and political agents to play along with party politics and resist forms of demagogy that are merely the effect of computational analyses.
Closer to home, Counted premiered at London’s County Hall in 2010, just before the last general election. The verbatim play was co-developed by Stephen Bottoms and the theatre company Look Left Look Right. It used edited transcripts of interviews conducted with a cross-section of West Yorkshire voters to put people’s conflicting relationships with politics onto the stage.
The play, like Coleman’s book, evolved from research on the aesthetic dimensions of voting, conducted at the University of Leeds. The same research also produced two other works: Bryan Davies’s mobile sculpture Here We Vote (2010), proposing a more community oriented form of voting, and my own video essay The Road to Voting (2010), in which I investigate the physical and material environment of elections. The film looks at the back-stages of the voting machinery, its support systems, logistics and infrastructure.
Like Fight Night, these productions set out to shift attention from numbers to voices, countable votes to voting narratives and quantifiable turnouts to voting environments. They may even teach us to become more enchanted with the process of voting.