Tell someone you’re not going to vote, and there’s a good chance a condescending cliché will be turned back at you. “Thousands of people have died for your right to cast a ballot,” they might say. Or perhaps, “The best way to keep a right is to exercise it.” People around you will likely nod approvingly at this sage commentary.
But thinking beyond these platitudes will actually lead to a different conclusion: The existence of a right does not imply an obligation to use it.
Most people would agree that I should have the right to make a racist statement. Yet at the same time, they would also concur that there is a moral imperative for me not to exercise this freedom.
Why not? Because the recognition of a right is necessarily indifferent, to some extent, to the moral implications of that right.
That is, we value certain freedoms—speech, assembly, habeas corpus, voting, and the like (though it’s worth pointing out that the valuation varies among individuals)—so much that almost no matter what, no matter how offensive the speech or how despicable the accused, we recognize the former’s freedom of expression and the latter’s right to a fair trial.
That doesn’t mean that exercise of freedoms can’t have moral consequences, just that it’s not always a one-way street: The morally right action can also be choosing to abstain from exercising a right.
This logic ought to be considered when discussing the ethics of voting. The sentiment that not enough people vote in America is—like having a Barack Obama button on your backpack or listing Fight Club as your favorite movie on Facebook—astonishingly common. When someone makes this point, there is an automatic separation of people into categories: good (voters, including, of course, the comment-maker himself) and bad (non-voters, other people).
Rarely is there a recognition that it is often perfectly rational for people not to cast a ballot: They don’t have time, they realize the insignificance of a single vote, or they don’t know enough about the candidates or the issues.
It’s this last rationale that is perhaps most important. It, in fact, provides a legitimate moral imperative not to vote. If, say, you are voting for county commissioner, and you can’t tell one candidate from another, you probably ought not to vote. This applies to every election, presidential included—the country is better off when those who aren’t attuned to politics or policy abstain from voting.
But wait, you say, that’s elitist! Yes, it is. But that says nothing about the point’s validity.
A democracy is best served when the people making decisions are well informed. In turn, we should try to make as many people informed as possible. But we should not confuse means with ends here: It is not good in and of itself if more people vote; it is good if more people are educated about what they’re voting on, which will lead them to cast a ballot.
Of course, everyone, no matter their education or knowledge of public affairs, should have the right to vote. But what it really comes down to is respecting another right: the right not to vote.
People—people who don’t care about politics as much as you or I—have other things they care more about than politics. And that’s perfectly all right. Let those who care vote and those who don’t care not vote. Just don’t think you’re better than anyone else if you happen to fall into the former group.
Matt Barnum is a third-year in the College majoring in psychology. He is a Maroon Viewpoints editor.