Must We Vote?

There’s exactly one month to go until election day. It’s as good a moment as any to announce a series of blog posts that I will publish over the next few weeks, to argue that, contrary to what is often said, there is no moral duty to vote or, in other words, that it is not wrong to stay home on October 19. I won’t be saying that you ought to abstain. If you believe that there is a candidate or party who will move the country at least somewhat closer to your policy preferences, by all means, go and vote for him/her/it. If you believe that there is a candidate or party who will move the country noticeably further away from your preferences than the others, then you should probably consider voting strategically to prevent this from happening. The claim I will be defending is that if you think that all the options on offer are roughly equally good or, more likely I suspect, equally bad, then you are under no obligation to vote for one them, or even to go and spoil your ballot.

I will be making this argument on grounds of political morality, not law. Of course, if there is no moral duty to vote, then it would be wrong for Parliament to require people to do so, as the Liberal Party, in particular, has mused about doing. On the other hand, even if there were a moral duty to vote, it would not follow that Parliament would be justified in using the threat of legal sanctions to force people to comply with it. Nor would it follow that the imposition of mandatory voting would be constitutional. The case for a moral duty to vote should be easier to make than that for the enactment of a law mandating voting. It is this easier case that I will address.

More specifically, I will address, in separate posts, a number of arguments I have seen made in favour of a duty to vote (or indeed of mandatory voting laws, which I take to presuppose the existence of a moral duty to vote). I have addressed one such argument a couple of months ago, when I argued against a claim to the effect that we must vote in order to honour and express our gratitude to the people who helped win and preserve the right to vote, whether against domestic opposition or foreign enemies. Over the next few weeks, I will address three other such arguments. One holds that we must vote because election results are useful information about the state of affairs in the nation, and we owe it, whether to our fellow citizens or to the politicians whom we elect, to do our part in generating this information. A second, perhaps somewhat similar, argument is that the existence of (and actual compliance with) a duty to vote helps improve the quality of election campaigns ― an improvement which we are in dire need of, and from which all would benefit. The third argument I will address is that it is necessary for us to vote in order to preserve the legitimacy of our democratic government.

Perhaps this list of arguments for a duty to vote is incomplete. If I am missing your favourite one, please let me know. I am open to expanding my post series, and even to changing my mind if you persuade me to do so. (Please do not tell me that we should all just vote for your favourite candidate, or against the one you particularly hate. I have done my best to keep this blog non-partisan, and remain committed to this position.) Feel free, as well, to suggest related topics that I might cover as part of this series. For instance, I will probably have a post on people who, far from accepting that they have a duty to vote, believe that they actually may not do so, even though the law says otherwise. And of course, I will have a post to respond to comments and criticism, if you are so kind as to provide some.

In short, I would like this to be a conversation, something like a slow-motion seminar maybe. Whether or not we convince each other in the end, at least the quality of our arguments on this topic, which is pretty sure to be much discussed after, if not before, election day, will hopefully be better as a result.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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