A Civic Choice

This is the last substantive post in my duty-to-vote series. I have already addressed a number of instrumental arguments in favour of such a duty: claims that it allows better aggregation of information about the voters’ preferences, that it enhances the legitimacy of our political system, and that it improves the quality of election campaigns. In this post, I address a different type of argument: that we must vote not because universal voting serves some other purpose, but just because it is a “civic duty.” One cannot, it is said, be a good citizen if one does not vote.

Andrew Coyne, although he also makes a number of instrumental arguments in favour of a (legally-enforced) duty to vote, invokes this idea of civic duty when he asks, presumably rhetorically: “[w]hy should voting, the fundamental act of democracy, be an option, and not, like jury duty or paying your taxes, a basic obligation of citizenship?” When I first announced this series of posts, Craig Forcese responded (on Tiwtter) that “Civics, like reading, is [a] muscle that atrophies [without] regular use,” and further that “[v]oting [is a] collaborative civics ritual in an atomized society [with] very few” of those. It is, he said, “[a]s much about membership as governance.”

I have to admit that I am somewhat perplexed by the idea of a “civic duty” that exists for no particular reason, just as an incidence of membership in society. Mr. Coyne’s examples of jury duty and taxes can be justified (if indeed they can be), on instrumental grounds. Jury trial is (so we think) a bulwark of liberty, while taxes are needed to keep government running and to help the poor or those otherwise in need of their fellow-citizens’ assistance. But instrumental justifications for a duty to vote, I have argued, do not succeed.

But let’s put that doubt to one side, and let’s stipulate that we can have some duties as a result of our membership in society, regardless of whether fulfilling these duties actually serves any useful purpose. And let’s stipulate that one such duty is to take public affairs seriously, to concern yourself with the way your society is governed, and to share this concern with your fellow-citizens. I’m actually very skeptical that we have such a duty. It seems to be, at best, an instantiation of a broader, and more plausible, duty to contribute to society ― but as Jason Brennan argues in his book on The Ethics of Voting and in a post over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians, we have any number of ways to contribute to society, not all of them having anything to do with politics or public affairs writ large:

For any given citizen, given what other citizens are doing and are good at doing, there will be an optimal mix of political and non-political ways for her to pay her debt [to society, assuming that there is one]. For some citizens, this will mean heavy political engagement at the expense of other pursuits. For other citizens, it will mean complete disengagement so as to free the citizen to pursue non-political activities. For most citizens, the optimal mix will be some combination of political and non-political engagement.

(I’m not sure, by the way, that prof. Brennan is even correct to say that “for most citizens” political engagement will be part of the “optimal mix.” The average levels of political ignorance are so high that “most citizens” may be doing more harm than good by becoming involved in politics in any way. But let’s put that to one side too.)

Anyway, let’s stipulate that we have a duty to become politically engaged together with our fellow citizens. Does it follow that we have a duty to vote? I do not think so. To be sure, voting is a way to fulfill this hypothetical duty, but it is not the only one. Surely, debating public affairs, whether just with your friends on Facebook or in some more public forum, is a form of political engagement. Surely, working for some organization that contributes to the public good, as it sees it, is a way of taking part in the polity’s affairs. I would, indeed, go further, and say that such ways of becoming engaged are actually much more significant that voting. I am pretty sure that I have contributed a good deal more to the res publica, over the last three and a half years, with this blog than I would by casting ― or, a fortiori, by spoiling ― a ballot next Monday. Perhaps we have, as Sean Hunt put it to me on Twitter, a “duty to consider” our options. But then what? If, having considered the choices on offer, you find none of them palatable, I do not think that you do anything wrong by staying home.

For those who, like prof. Forcese, worry that the civic instincts of the abstainers will atrophy without a quadrennial exercise in walking to the polling station, I think that a “duty to consider” or a duty to be engaged in public affairs should be enough. If you follow politics and think about it, you will surely not fail to vote if or when you finally see a party that actually deserves your support, or perhaps even one that is so much worse than the others that you vote strategically against it. It is interesting, I think, that a recent poll found that people who think that voting is a choice are not much less likely to vote as those who think that it is a duty. Among the former, only 5% said they would not vote, while 11% are undecided as to whom they will support. Among the latter it was 0 and 5%, respectively. (26) The absolute numbers are probably lower than they are in reality: overall, 72% of those who were eligible to vote in 2011 said they voted, while the true turnout rate was closer to 60% ― people lie to pollsters (and I wonder whether the purportedly duty-bound do not lie more than those who allow themselves the choice). But in any event, it’s not those who think that voting is a choice who fail to vote in large numbers: it’s those who “don’t know” whether it’s a choice or a duty. Among them, 19% say they will not vote, and 31% are undecided.

In short, voting is neither necessary to promote some ulterior good, nor in itself a duty. It is a right which, as I pointed out in this earlier post discussing the claim that we ought to vote out of gratitude to those who helped secure and defend our right to do so, like all other rights, we can choose to exercise or not. This choice should not be made lightly, but it can, and should, be made freely.

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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