Rumor has it that there’s a presidential election scheduled in the U.S. this fall, which raises the perennial ethical question: Is there a duty to vote? Harry Brighouse provides some excellent arguments for there not being such a duty, but here I’ll lay out a few pros and cons and invite people to weigh in on whether there is such a duty.
I gather it’s uncontroversial that, except in very unusual circumstances, it’s always morally permissible to vote; no moral duties are violated by voting. So what are some arguments that there is such a duty?
If you support democracy, there’s a duty to participate in the democratic process by voting. This looks like an appeal to integrity. If you believe (as probably most sensible people do) that democracy is the most defensible form of government, then you have a duty to ensure that the democracy you live in functions properly, which can only take place if you vote. So voting is a vote for democracy.
Yet voting is not only not the only way to participate in the democratic process. Running for office, holding rallies and demonstrations, writing letters to the editor, educating others about the issues, rallying others to vote: These are just a few ways in which we can participate without voting — and arguably, these might have more impact on the process than one’s vote. Very few elections are actually decided by margins small enough to make one person’s vote meaningful.
A close cousin to this argument is ….
Failing to vote is an indication of apathy or indifference. This one has a virtue-theoretical ring to it. If you don’t vote, you are signaling that you’re indifferent to the state of your community. But people should care about the state of their communities and show that concern by voting.
But again, failing to vote doesn’t tell us that the non-voter is indifferent to her community. She may show her concern in other ways and/or she might conclude that her voting is not likely to make a substantive impact on her community. Furthermore not voting could be taken as the non-voters’ signal about the health of a democracy. Perhaps the candidates are so poor, the process so corrupted, etc. that by not voting, the non-voter expresses her opposition to the pseudo-democratic status quo.
Non-voters have no basis for subsequent complaint. This seems like an appeal to cooperative burdens. Voting is a burden, so by not voting, non-voters show themselves unwilling to bear these burdens. But only those who bear the burdens of a cooperative scheme should enjoy its benefits. Although it’s effectively impossible to keep non-voters from enjoying the benefits of democracy, there must be something that non-voters forego as a consequence of not bearing their share of the burden. What they forego is the right to hold one’s government accountable for its failures and to complain about these failures.
In response, voting doesn’t seem to be all that burdensome. Indeed, most jurisdictions are trying to make it increasingly convenient (by establishing vote by mail, etc.). More directly, however, it’s not obvious to me that a person who doesn’t bear the modest burdens of voting thereby relinquishes her right to legitimately complain about the cooperative scheme of which voting is a part. For one thing, the non-voter may well bear other burdens imposed by this scheme (paying her taxes, obeying the law, etc.). Moreover, this arguments seems weak when, by not bearing the burden, the voter is not materially undermining the cooperative scheme, and as I mentioned above, not voting rarely has much impact on the health of one’s democracy or the justness of one’s society. Not voting looks like a harmless instance of non-contribution to a cooperative democratic scheme.
Good old Kantian universalization. This is an old standby: You cannot coherently will that a maxim of not voting be universalized, for then no one would vote and democracy would collapse.
Obviously, the way around this argument is to build into the maxim various conditions: if one’s vote will not materially affect the outcome, etc. A more narrowly tailored maxim probably could be universalized. In a more substantive Kantian vein, I think many Kantians would agree that there is a duty to establish and maintain just democratic institutions. But here I suspect this operates more like an imperfect duty rather than a perfect duty: The duty prescribes an end which we may realize in a variety of ways, only one of which is voting.
So, in short, I don’t see any knockdown argument for a general moral duty to vote (some of these arguments might demonstrate a restricted or conditional duty). But perhaps these arguments are better than I’m giving credit for or there are other stronger arguments that I have failed to consider.