Britain's Screwy Vote-Trading Scheme

Sam Bungey on the British foreign vote giveaway and whether it’s headed to America next.

In the wreckage of this month’s British elections, one group of votes in particular stands out. While they hardly register in terms of numbers, what makes them noteworthy is that the people who cast them are citizens of Afghanistan, Ghana, and Bangladesh.

Give Your Vote, dreamed up by election activists, was a fiendishly simple idea. Disaffected Britons could give their vote to someone in the developing world who wanted a say in their election. The willing participant in the U.K. signed up online to receive a text from someone in Kabul, Accra, or Dhaka with a candidate’s name. The Brits then toddled off to the polls to cast a proxy vote for their foreign counterparts.

For the chronically indecisive, it’s the perfect way to delegate a civic duty, and the group has already set its sights on American voters and the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

According to the organizers, at least 2,541 Britons thought the choices on the ballot were unappealing enough to give away their vote. (And, let’s face it, Labour leader Gordon Brown came off as a granny-ragging misfit; the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg resembled a talk-show host; and the Tories’ David Cameron, who eventually slipped into Downing Street as the victor, seemed as oleaginous as a Louisiana mackerel.)

As a consequence, 2,541 people living in Afghanistan, Ghana, and Bangladesh got a say in an election that will arguably affect their own countries. After all, the British prime minister will make decisions about troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and whether to honor climate agreements in Copenhagen, an issue close to the heart of Bangladeshis, who live less than 30 feet above sea level.

For the chronically indecisive, it’s the perfect way to delegate a civic duty, and the group has already set its sights on American voters and the 2012 U.S. presidential election. Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu called the vote-swapping idea “a radical call for all human beings to have their say.” An Israeli group contacted organizers about a vote swap with Gaza. And there was talk of a German campaign.

Read our full coverage of the British Elections“Obviously, we’re not suggesting that everyone should be voting in each other’s elections,” says James Sardi, the Iranian-born British founder of Give Your Vote. “This is just a means to show that the electorate needs to be expanded.”

In Britain, not every reaction to the initiative was positive. Some commentators pointed to the lack of hard evidence that any foreigners were actually voting and questioned the practicality of global vote-swapping. The British political blogger Dave Semple argued that the initiative only appealed to “well-off liberals, who can afford to sacrifice their own interest.”

According to Sardi, other reactions included death threats from the Taliban (directed at an Afghan coordinator) and sinister warnings from supporters of the British Nationalist Party. “When those two [groups] are against you, you must be doing something right,” said Sardi, who was unfazed by the blowback.

The campaign began a month before Election Day, with Give Your Vote volunteers working the streets in Britain to drum up hype. Politicians’ ears inevitably pricked up, and perhaps the clearest vindication of the campaign was that several British politicians began to canvass the Bangladeshi electorate, appealing to the proxy voters in Bengali. The footage is on YouTube. “It shows that if people overseas are given votes, politicians will chase those votes,” said Sardi, who gave up his own vote. “It’s quite surreal.”

Meanwhile, volunteers in Kabul, Accra, and Dhaka organized live screenings of the candidates’ debates. They also arranged for television and radio campaigns to raise awareness of the initiative and, in Accra, painted a prominent mural of Brown, Clegg, and Cameron.

So who would govern Britain if the Afghanis, Ghanaians, and Bangledeshis had their say? The foreigners voted overwhelming for the most liberal candidate, Clegg, while Prime Minister Cameron flopped in a distant third.

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Sam Bungey grew up in London, went to university in Dublin and co-founded Mongrel, a monthly magazine about Irish youth culture. A freelance journalist, he was recently a reporter and online editor at the Vineyard Gazette in Massachusetts. He lives in Sydney, Australia.