Viewpoints » Columnists

I’m not voting

On Election Day, we’re all entitled to vote according to our convictions—or not at all.

If you’re at all like me, election season entails a substantial time commitment. Just think of all the information to be pored over in excruciating detail; all the background arguments to be researched, analyzed, and dissected; all the heated discussions to be had with friends and enemies alike; all the inane and momentous campaign developments to be tirelessly followed! For me, it’s an elaborate but inevitably gratifying process—an internal preparation for that ultimate, solemn exercise of civic duty: The day when I, yet again, refuse to vote.

You read that correctly. I can assure you from experience that not voting is at least as much work as voting. The disapproving looks, the sudden deflation of confidence in my moral and civic character, the noble attempts to conclusively establish just how much of an uninformed and uncaring philistine I am—these things don’t just take care of themselves.

Okay, I’ll admit it: I take delight in having the opportunity to defend my decision against the vitriolic moralizing I often encounter upon telling people that I don’t vote. Nonetheless, the degree of hostility I have to deal with is deeply disheartening and, I’d like to argue, fundamentally inappropriate. My reason for not voting is personal; I freely acknowledge that it won’t apply to everyone and, moreover, that it is merely one among a wide array of reasons why a perfectly rational and just person might elect to refrain from voting. So instead of trying to defend mine here, I’d like to defuse some of the conventional arguments which animate the self-appointed enforcers of my putative moral obligation to vote.

Let’s start with a hypothetical question: Under what sets of circumstances would not voting indeed be ethically reprehensible? I propose two possible answers. First, I’ll allow that gods, beings I’ll define as having perfect knowledge about morality and the consequences of their actions, might be required to vote. If I knew without question that Romney would be a better choice, judged by the infallible standards of the one “true” moral system, I would indeed (begrudgingly) lend him my vote. But no matter how much voting—an inherently reductive and galvanizing process—might make me feel like one, I humbly concede that I’m no god and don’t always know how to move forward on a given issue.

In general, our ethical systems vary as much as our personalities: Without a working fluency in that one, true moral code (if indeed there is such a thing), the best we can do is to rely on our own native ethical sensibilities. Beyond mere hubris, I see no compelling reason to believe that my ethical code—or, for that matter, my business acumen or foreign policy stance—is superior to yours. I’m happy to debate with you and even happy to change my beliefs, but for now I happen to be wary of any moral code that would require me to impose my beliefs and preferences on you.

In case this all seems too abstract or radical, here’s an example of how a perfectly reasonable moral code might discourage one from voting: Ethan (real person, fake name) is gay and very active in the struggle to attain equal legal rights for everyone. Nonetheless, when a proposition was put on the ballot in California to rescind the rights of same-sex couples to marry, he refused to vote on the issue. His position: He couldn’t vote for Prop. 8 because doing so would suggest that he is not interested in achieving the equal rights he is indeed ardently fighting for. On the other hand, he maintained that he couldn’t vote against it because, for now, allowing gay marriage would only further incite bigotry against same-sex couples without addressing the underlying social factors which lead to the persistent abrogation of gay rights. It would alleviate the symptoms but worsen the illness.  I don’t agree with him and you might not either—the point is that he believes it, and I can’t fault him for not voting.

Easy enough. Here’s the more formidable opponent: Perhaps the moral obligation doesn’t extend over the content of my vote—which specific campaign or stance I thumb up—but rather over its form. History has shown us that the vast majority of non-democratic political systems inevitably lead to gross abuses of power and subjugation of the weak and powerless. Democracy, when properly implemented, seems to do a generally better job of preventing such atrocities. If you’re still with me, the act of voting—regardless of for whom or what I’m offering my support—is a fundamental affirmation of democracy over tyranny.

The argument is riddled with holes: First, we’re talking about American democracy here, a tradition with a legacy of squashing democratic uprisings abroad when they are inconvenient to our own agenda. And however much voting may bolster the project of democracy against tyrannical impulses, to the same degree it fosters complacency about the status quo, hindering our growth towards more mature and advanced political systems—democratic or otherwise.

Voting is about democracy, and democracy relies on a fair, open exchange of ideas. (Proof by contradiction: A democracy consisting solely of the brainwashed is no democracy indeed.) The sense of arrogant superiority both kindled by the voting process and exhibited in those who will tout voting as an unquestionable moral duty kills debate, subverting the very principles which ought to make voting worthwhile in the first place.

Tyler Lutz is a fourth-year in the College majoring in physics and English.


  • Mom of 3

    You think you are different because you aren’t going to vote? Not voting at all, is something 40,000,000+ people already do every year, so that is your answer to the problem? I see not voting as consenting to be governed… by whomever is selected for you.

  • David

    “I’m happy to debate with you and even happy to change my beliefs, but for now I happen to be wary of any moral code that would require me to impose my beliefs and preferences on you.”

    That point, along with many others, makes me think you should consider looking outside the two major parties. Perhaps the Libertarian Party is more in line with your principles. At the very least, you can consider it a defensive vote against having others beliefs and preferences imposed on you.

  • how did this get published

    You’re completely missing the point here. Clearly you’ve decided that you’re not going to vote and that is a personal decision – I won’t try to talk you out of it. But don’t try to spin your lazy, half-baked contrarianism into a philosophical argument. Your claim that voting “kills debate” and furthers the abuses of our political system is completely unfounded. I don’t even know where to begin…

    Okay, so you’re defending yourself against people who claim that not voting is “morally reprehensible.” This is a classic straw-man. Most voters don’t think they are fulfilling a moral imperative – they are simply acting as responsible participants a (flawed, but still functional) democracy. You point out that nobody has certain knowledge of how their preferred candidate will govern and whether or not they will be effective. Well, duh. But our lack of perfect foresight shouldn’t prevent us from considering the issues and making informed choices. You argue that to vote is to endorse the American political system and thus to condone “democratic squashings abroad” – but by the same logic, not voting would be to reject democracy and thus simulate the “tyrannical” “subjugation” of non-democratic systems that you disparage. So you disagree with American foreign policy – is the solution to withhold your opinions because you think that will make the government understand how you disagree with it? Sorry, it just doesn’t work that way. I’m not sure you fully understand how our political system functions. After all, if it weren’t for the democratic process, you wouldn’t have the freedom to express your opinion in a public forum. When you don’t vote, you are a free-rider – you have no right to criticize a system when you’ve spurned the most important means to reforming it.

    I am still sort of stunned by the stupidity of this argument, especially from a UChicago student. You’ve essentially said that because our representative democracy isn’t flawless, we shouldn’t participate in it. You are “wary of any moral code that would require me to impose my beliefs and preferences on you.” Is that what voting is to you – an imposition of beliefs and preferences? Does that mean that we should never express any opinion – contribute to any discussion – out of fear that our opinion comes from an imperfect moral system? If everyone thought that way, who would make decisions?

    I’d like to hear how legalizing gay marriage “would only further incite bigotry against same-sex couples.” Sure, it’s not a silver bullet for eliminating discrimination, but it’s a step in the right direction. “It would alleviate the symptoms but worsen the illness” – I don’t think gay-marriage advocates argue that it would “alleviate the symptoms” of discrimination against gays, but how would it “worsen the illness?” The “illness” you refer to isn’t even clear. This is an instance of a specific argument about a ballot proposition (that happens to be nonsense), but it doesn’t even belong in this argument, if you’re explaining why YOU don’t vote. You need to decide whether your decision is based on the consequences of certain specific ballot questions, or whether you’re against the act of voting in a democracy altogether. It seems to be the latter, in which case the gay marriage example adds nothing to the argument.

    This is not to say that in principle, a convincing argument can’t be made for voter abstention. You just haven’t made one. There is the kernel of an interesting point in this piece: namely, that voting “bolsters complacency about the status quo.” But your 2-sentence treatment of this suggests that you’re just parroting a catchphrase you heard some political theorist say on NPR. We’re not convinced until you explain how the voting process actually “kindles…a sense of arrogant superiority” – but the idea has potential. Too bad it’s stuck within a morass of incoherent bullshit.

    To call this piece casuistry would give it the undue dignity of logical coherence. Not only is it wrong on multiple levels, but in addition, the argument is abstruse and incredibly poorly written. Shame on you for dressing up bullshit in rhetorical glitter. And shame on the Viewpoints editors for letting this slip through the cracks.

  • Not enough ice in the world

    I think the Maroon just found a new editor.

  • Not enough ice in the world

    Looks like the Maroon found itself a new editor.

  • Well Damn

    *slow clap*

  • Immanuel

    “Beyond mere hubris, I see no compelling reason to believe that my ethical code—or, for that matter, my business acumen or foreign policy stance—is superior to yours.”

    Really?

    I would take “a compelling reason to believe that my ethical code…is superior to yours” to mean something that would tell tell me that I must necessarily hold my ethical code to be more likely to be a correct account of truth than other possible ethical codes.

    I take the phrase “my ethical code” to mean simply “my beliefs about what is right and wrong.”

    These both seem like fairly straightforward readings.

    Based on these readings, we can reduce the statement, “Beyond mere hubris, I see no compelling reason to believe that my ethical code…is superior to yours,” to: “Beyond mere hubris, I find nothing that tells me that I must necessarily hold my beliefs about what is right and wrong to be more likely to be a correct account of truth than other possible beliefs about what is right and wrong.”

    But surely a possible belief about anything is simply a possible account of it, and a belief that I call my own is simply an account of it that I hold to be more likely to be a correct account of truth than any other possible accounts.

    Thus, the statement, “I must necessarily hold my beliefs about what is right and wrong to be more likely to be a correct account of truth than other possible beliefs about what is right and wrong,” is the same as the statement, “I must necessarily hold that the account I hold to be more likely to be a correct account of truth than any other possible account of what what is right and wrong is more likely to be a correct account of truth than any other possible account of what is right and wrong.” When we read it this way, of course, it becomes obvious that the statement is an analytic truth.

    (To understand how this is the case, simply imagine a person who says, “I believe X is true, but I don’t think that it’s any more likely that X is true than that X is false.” This person would obviously be talking nonsense.)

    That seems like a fairly compelling reason to me.