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Is There a Duty to Vote?

Written by Joseph Moore

This new year is a presidential election year in my home country of the United States. And so, there is likely to be no shortage of U.S. political news and commentary surrounding candidates’ pasts, their present comments and their campaign promises. It is also likely that many U.S. citizens (and probably some others) will find themselves embroiled, more frequently than usual, in weighty conversations about current events, political strategy or social or economic issues. And when the primary and general elections draw near, there will be repeated calls for all eligible voters to vote, regardless of who or what they vote for.

With all of the information (and misinformation) available and with the depth of many of the substantive issues, it will take a non-negligible amount of time and energy to remain fully politically informed throughout the election cycle. I am sure some people would rather not devote that time and energy to the process. Yet one often faces immense public and interpersonal pressure to be informed and to vote. These are sometimes even advanced as moral or civic duties on the part of citizens of democracies. To what extent are these really duties? Are citizens truly obligated to stay politically up-to-date and to vote in elections?

A few preliminary notes about what kind of obligations I mean to be discussing. First, there is an academic literature concerning the decision-theoretic rationality of voting which stems from the observation that there is next to no chance of any one person’s vote being decisive and thus next to no expected benefit to voting (the so-called ‘paradox of voting’). Here, I am not considering the rationality of voting but whether we owe it to other people. I assume that those who consider it an interpersonal obligation will think either that the problem of intrapersonal rationality will have some solution (e.g., in terms of expressive value) or that the interpersonal obligation does not depend on its intrapersonal rationality. (Indeed, if there is an interpersonal obligation, one might think this will affect the decision-theoretic calculus and potentially help resolve the paradox of voting.)

Second, there is also a body of literature dedicated to evaluating various possible voting procedures. Among these possible procedures is compulsory voting, where eligible voters are legally required to vote on pain of some form of punishment, such as a fine. I am also not addressing here the question of whether voting should be legally mandatory in this sense. This question is largely orthogonal to the question of whether there is an interpersonal obligation to vote. Even if voting is a moral or civic duty, we do not think all such duties ought to be legally enforced. In this case, there may be competing considerations having to do with personal liberty and the empirical consequences of enacting such a policy. On the other hand, even if voting is not a moral or civic duty, it might be socially beneficial to legally mandate it for one reason or another.

Third, even advocates probably will not view these putative duties as absolute requirements. If someone, for example, has to squeeze in a few hours of sleep each day in between childcare and multiple jobs, they will presumably be exempt from an obligation to keep informed. And if someone is visiting their ailing relative in another state on short notice on election day, they will not be shirking their duty by not heading to the polls first. If these are duties at all, they are defeasible ones—what W.D. Ross called ‘prima facie duties’ and are now sometimes called ‘pro tanto obligations’. Other obligations (e.g., to family members) or considerations may outweigh these defeasible duties of information and voting, or at least excuse non-performance. So, to consider whether these are really duties at all, we should keep in mind examples of people who lack overriding obligations and who can reasonably afford to keep informed, even though doing so does come at some cost.

Perhaps the least controversial example of such a defeasible, interpersonal obligation in the vicinity is that if one votes, one should be reasonably informed. It seems like it would be irresponsible of someone to vote for a candidate without knowing their promised platform, their stance on political issues that are likely to come up during their term of office and at least some of their personal and professional qualifications for the role. It would likewise seem irresponsible to vote in support of a particular position on an issue without a reasonable understanding of that issue and the relatively probable social and/or economic effects of one’s preferred outcome and proposed alternatives.

Now, any plausible obligation to keep oneself politically informed will likely have a conditional structure like this, rather than being its own self-standing duty. It makes sense to be informed for the purpose of voting. It would also make sense to be informed for other practical purposes, such as to be involved in political action besides voting or to navigate certain social settings where such knowledge is expected. But it is unclear that there is any point to being informed simply for its own sake and independently of any further action one might take. That is, if one is not going to vote or engage in any other political action or in any other way modify one’s behaviour as a result of one’s political information, then keeping informed will not do anyone else any good. (Maybe the knowledge is intrinsically good for the informed person, but surely they are not obligated to benefit themselves in this way, particularly when they may use their time and resources to benefit themselves in other ways that they care about more.)

The best case, I think, for a standing obligation to remain informed is so that one will know when political action is necessary: when one must go vote or march or sign a petition, etc. If one does not keep informed, one may be unaware of something they ought to be doing. But even in this case, the real obligation is the relevant action, to which the duty to be informed is subsidiary. The case for a general duty to be politically informed, then, hangs on the presence (or at least probability) of obligations for political action. A general duty to vote when occasions arise would be one such obligation that could undergird a general duty to keep informed (at least when opportunities to vote are imminent). So let us now consider such a duty.

I have heard a number of purported justifications for the idea, common enough, that all eligible voters should vote, regardless of how they will vote: People have worked hard or fought or even died to secure the right to vote, and we must honour their sacrifices. Not everyone has, or has had, the legal right to vote and we must not spurn this opportunity denied to so many others. To abstain from voting is to free-ride while others contribute to the intrinsically valuable democratic process, or else to its valuable results.

These justifications, however, are not fully convincing. For one thing, rights do not in general and on their own generate duties, even when those rights are hard-won or denied to others. The rights to free speech, bearing arms and the freedom of the press—equally enshrined, via amendment, in the U.S. Constitution—are not often thought to entail obligations to speak publicly, to own weapons or to publish. Reproductive rights do not obligate their bearers either to procreate or to use birth control. Labour rights do not obligate workers to organise or, indeed, obligate anyone to work outside the home, even members of groups formerly or elsewhere excluded by discrimination.

For another, the practical reality in the U.S. in 2024 is that enough people are already interested in voting for the democratic process and national governance to continue. The small set of possible election outcomes is not likely to be affected by any realistic variation in voter turnout, which typically ranges from one-half to two-thirds in U.S. presidential elections. And even if a higher voter turnout somehow increases the expressive value of the democratic process without affecting the outcome, that is primarily good only for those who already value that process over and above the public good of national governance. While it is nice, in general, to participate in group activities that other people care about, it usually does not rise to the level of a duty.

When there are more than enough people interested in voting to keep the democratic process going, voting seems less like paying taxes and more analogous to working in government or, for that matter, serving in any other occupation. The former is something everyone must do on pain of objectionable free-riding since each individual would prefer not to have to pay taxes themselves. In the latter kind of case, by contrast, someone has to do the work, yes, but there are plenty of people willing, so it is not obligatory for any particular individual. The systems of representative government in place in the U.S. and other modern democracies are, indeed, predicated on the assumption that such voluntary distributions of political labour are not only permissible but also effective.

This is not a decisive refutation of a general duty to vote but a challenge to some common, perhaps largely rhetorical, attempts to justify such a duty. Serious advocates can presumably come up with better arguments and they should do so. Without such arguments to hand, people should be less quick to throw stones at those who do not vote or keep politically up-to-date. Many vocal proponents of voting seem to forget that abstaining from voting can also be a political act. Among other things, it can express disapproval with all of a limited number of electoral outcomes or signify an absence of support for flawed political circumstances or institutions. (Interestingly, deliberate abstention seems to be better recognised as a political act within representative bodies like the U.S. Congress than in elections by the general public.)

Moreover, if one feels oneself to be inadequately politically informed, the most responsible choice might be to refrain from voting. Considering the breadth and complexity of the interconnected social and economic issues of our day, the threshold for adequate political information may be quite high. Or it might be quite costly to a particular individual to remain adequately informed—it might, for example, take a significant emotional toll. If, for such reasons, there is a general permission not to keep informed, then the conditional obligation to be informed in case one votes may actually count against a general obligation to vote. (One’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens.) It might thus turn out that the only real obligation in the vicinity is disjunctive: either keep politically informed or don’t vote.

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3 Comment on this post

  1. Duty to vote…. Duty to be keep oneself politically informed ….

    But does politics really matter so much? Should people live politically? Is politics so important in our daily routine?

    Nowadays we think it is. We condiser politics to be very crucial part of our living. But this kind of thinking is very dangerous.

    The politician is not guru. He is not an all-knowing leader. The politician is only a football referee. He just keeps an eye on the rules but the game itself is about us.
    The politician is not player, not coach, not the club owner. If in the football match we see only the referee how he whistles and give the cards, the game is spoiled. If the referee is invisible we watch good game.

    Also the democracy is not the system that should ensure the best kind of government. The democracy only ensures that the politicians are regularly changed. No more no less (Huntington The Third Wave).

    So we should not obey more and more duties connecting with politics.
    The more political mobilization the more authoritative the political regime is. It can terminates in the Orwell’s room with screen that will
    watch how politically aware we are.

  2. Many of us were taught this. I never thought much of the idea of *duty* in connection with voting. Living in a free country, or even one where totalitarianism demands voting, it is largely symbolic protocol. For my part, freedom means not only ‘freedom to’ but also ‘freedom from’. As in freedom from. (fill in the blank). Peer pressure was a factor when we were younger. Those of age, who chose not to vote and were foolish enough to advertise, it could be labelled communist or worse. The duty to vote dialogue goes way back, then. Take it as your conscience, or peer group, dictate.

  3. Barring the fact that individual votes don’t count, why take a sample if you can gain a reading of the whole population- it is not a matter of duty or right, but determining the will of the population- plus it is a ritual of legitimacy which no democracy can do without

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