If we care about civic duty, there are many ways to be a good citizen other than voting. For example, we can give to charity, heal the sick, make art, teach, work productively in ways that create jobs and much else.
But just because there are many ways to further the common good doesn’t mean we can fail basic obligations required of us by our conscience.
An analogy will help to clarify this point. Imagine that your good friend is using crutches, and you are both waiting for a bus to arrive. Your friend would benefit from your assistance to board the bus. The effort to help him board the bus would not be unduly difficult or strenuous for you.
Your friend also happens to have a lot of credit card debt. While the bus is approaching, you hand him a check and say, “Take this money to pay your bills, but I’m not going to help you get onto the bus.”
Your monetary help deserves praise. But your friend still needs you to help him board the bus.
Voting involves a similar choice. The quality of government significantly affects every person in society. Elections offer us a relatively easy way to improve society if we vote and end up choosing decent governments. Donating to charity (or any of a number of other acts) may be virtuous, but it does not affect the lives of every person as profoundly as electing capable, civic-minded leaders. Furthermore, the idea that working in the market can pass as a dutiful act seems to stretch the concept of duty, which requires that the act done is not primarily motivated by self-interest but by the welfare of others.
2. Voting is like farming. It would be catastrophic if nobody farmed, but that does not mean we each have an obligation to become farmers.
This is a mistaken comparison. In contemporary societies like ours, farming is a line of work, an activity people do to make a living. It is for profit. The fact that it benefits society is an unintended consequence. No democracy that takes freedom seriously should infringe on the right of occupational choice by demanding that people farm.
But healthy democracies do curtail our freedom when they require that we serve as jurors, that we fight for our country in times of war, that we pay taxes and, more trivially, that we recycle our trash. These activities are burdensome; as individuals, we don’t necessarily gain from them. However, society does gain, quite a bit, when its citizens shoulder these collective burdens. Why should voting be any different?
3. Voting is futile from a utilitarian and instrumental standpoint.
Economists say voting is irrational. The time that one must commit to educate oneself about the candidates and issues, together with the time it actually takes to vote, outweighs the benefit to the individual and society of that person’s vote. In this view, each individual vote is a proverbial drop in the bucket that cannot affect the election’s outcome, given the total number of votes cast. Thus, no duty can require us to do something that will have zero impact on the world.
The locus classicus for the view that voting is irrational, which would shape political science for decades to come, was Anthony Down’s “An Economic Theory of Democracy.” This is the point of departure for opponents of the duty to vote.
But this claim misunderstands how instrumental rationality and utilitarianism operate. Utilitarianism requires that we contribute to increasing the overall welfare of society. It doesn’t require that our acts have a significant impact on their own or in our own individual lives. Neither does it require that the impact of our action is always the greatest it could be.
We are instrumentally rational when we choose a means that will further an end reasonably well. If our tiny contribution to a collective activity is added to many similar contributions that will together produce a highly desirable outcome, we may still act consistently with instrumental rationality. We may also act consistently with a utilitarian logic because we know that the final outcome of the collective project is highly beneficial for society.
Furthermore, every year there are elections that are decided by a handful of votes. This happens far more frequently than one might guess statistically. It may be unlikely that an individual’s single vote will determine the outcome of elections, but it may still add marginally to the set of votes needed to gain a majority.
Likewise, our vote may add, however modestly, to the margin of victory of our preferred candidate. That strengthens our candidate’s mandate and practical ability to govern without stalemate. Marginal contributions add up.
Lastly, many of us believe that a person ought not to vote unless he or she is well versed on the candidates and issues. But a single bad vote is unlikely to tip an election to a bad candidate. Further, it will also likely be offset by another uninformed voter’s vote for the other candidate.
If the individual act of refraining from voting badly will not make a discernible impact, we should not view voting with information as a duty that only makes sense if a single ballot can have an impact by itself. It will not, and that is just fine.
John Stuart Mill said in his essay “Considerations on Representative Government” that the vote gives us power over other people. Voting with knowledge and a sense of justice can be a truly effective way to aid society by acting in concert, even if it’s not the only way or the best way at all times. Hannah Arendt was surely wrong when, in her book “On Violence,” she wrote, “The booth in which we deposit our ballots is unquestionably too small, for this booth has room for only one.”
Voting is anything but solitary. We must see it as a collective endeavor if it is to mean anything at all for democracy.
Julia Maskivker is an associate professor of political theory in the political science department at Rollins College in Florida.