Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In Defense of Not Voting - UPDATED

When I was a senior in high school, some years ago, I took a trip with Brian Knapp to Washington D.C. to learn all about the government process. The trip was part of the "Close Up: Washington, DC" program for kids, and involved round table discussions, lectures, and trips to important monuments. It was January and man was it cold.
Anyways, Brian and I got into this entertaining routine of choosing the minority opinion whenever we, as a group, were discussing an issue. Didn't matter the issue, we just looked for which side was the minority opinion and ardently and vocally supported that side.
One issue that came up was whether or not it was okay to not vote. Basically, the moderator had anyone who felt that skipping the vote was okay go to one side of the room. Everyone who thought not voting was wrong was to go to the other side of the room. Unsurprisingly, Brian Knapp and I found ourselves alone on one side of the room. The 'vote skippers' side. This was probably unsurprising to the other students there because we'd both been making waves with our "controversial" opinions all week. I had argued that the United States had done a lot to reduce nuclear arms (which was clearly spelled START in our reading assignment, dummies) while everyone else there seemed to think America was committed to a massive and unchanged nuclear arsenal.
Anyway, the moderator asked us why we thought it was okay to not vote. Brian responded: "why should I vote for the candidate I dislike the least?" I expanded his response: "if, in the election, there is literally no candidate I feel is qualified or even close to competent enough to hold their potential office...if there is no proposition that I feel is important, no amendment, no tax, and no issue that really compels me left or right, why should I waste my time voting?" Then Brian: "Non-voting is basically a vote for no one. You are actively voting, just, you aren't voting for anyone." Then me: "Honestly, what percentage of people vote? At best, it's like 30-35%. Doesn't the 65% of people so apathetic or jaded or stubborn that they don't vote tell the elected officials something?"

Then Brian: "voting is a right, not a duty. Calling it a civic duty is unfair to people who simply cannot endorse one candidate over the other."

Sure, we were 18. But the truth of it is, even now, by the time November rolls around, I usually am saying "I don't want to vote for any of these assholes." So why should I? Even if I disliked one candidate more than I disliked the other, I don't want my vote to be misconstrued as a vote of support for one of them. Maybe I should still go to the polls, and write in a candidate. But how is that any different than not voting at all? Not voting for either candidate has the exact same effect as writing in a candidate.

Now, I am certainly not saying we all shouldn't vote. I brazenly voted for Mr. Obama in 2008. I actually like(d) Mr. Obama, and I definitely was voting for him, not against Mr. McCain. But in the 6 elections I have been old enough to participate in, I really have only been compelled a couple of times to vote for people. And I think I'm not alone.

So no, I didn't vote yesterday. I didn't have any reason to.

Update: Jason Brennan agrees:
I argue that while citizens have no duty to vote, if they do vote, they must vote well—on the basis of sound moral and empirical beliefs in order to promote the common good—or otherwise they are morally obligated to abstain. Though individual votes make no significant difference to political outcomes, bad voting violates either a duty not to participate in collectively harmful activities or a duty not to participate in collective activities that impose undue risk upon innocent people.
 Will Wilkinson also agrees:
The idea that we should vote well if we vote at all sounds innocuous enough. However, Mr Brennan's corollary argument that if we are not in a position to vote well, then it is wrong to vote runs counter to the civic religion of unconditional democratic participation. This argument will also surely make members of the political party most likely to benefit from high voter turnout hotly indignant. But when one considers that bad policy can be immensely harmful to the general welfare, and that the participation of poorly-informed voters makes the adoption of bad policy more likely, the duty of the ignorant to refrain from exercising the franchise does not seem so easy to rebut.


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