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.