Voter Independence and the "Duty to Vote" Myth
"What is any political campaign save a concerted effort to turn out a set of politicians who are admittedly bad and put in a set who are thought to be better? The former assumption, I believe, is always sound; the latter is just as certainly false." —H.L. Mencken
Many Americans adhere to the notion that there is a duty to vote for political candidates, and that even if the choices are undesirable, one should at least vote for the "lesser of two evils" rather than "waste" a vote by voting for a minority party candidate or by not voting at all. This deeply ingrained assumption is mistaken and is inherently dangerous. Although certain totalitarian governments require citizens to vote, what justification can there be in a free society for imposing a duty on individuals to vote? The notion of such a duty is plainly repugnant to political freedom.
The insidious effects of voting for the lesser of two evils and selecting a major candidate merely out of a mistaken sense of "duty" are twofold: It not only helps elect a candidate that voters themselves, by definition, perceive as evil—since the lesser of two evils is in itself evil—but also, by enlarging the turnout, it allows the winning candidate to claim a "mandate" from the voters.
Myths about voting die hard. But in this post-Watergate age of increased awareness of the workings of the political system, it is appropriate to reflect on the assumptions we have been conditioned (brainwashed?) to hold about voting.
In his landmark Journal of Political Economy article, "An Economic Theory of Political Action in a Democracy," Anthony Downs came to "the startling conclusion that it is irrational for most citizens to acquire political information for purposes of voting…[since] the probability that…[any person's] vote will determine which party governs is so low that even a trivial cost of procuring information outweighs its return." Downs recognized some good reasons why rational persons might become well informed about politics but they do not apply to the "average citizen."
Since, as Downs observed, the effect of any one citizen's vote is virtually negligible—and for the additional reasons that the quality of candidates tends to be so wretched—and in any event voters do not (ordinarily) get paid for voting for a particular candidate—it is indeed quite rational for most citizens not to vote. On the other hand, I submit that, in general, the primary justification for an individual to vote in a typical election is simply a feeling of self satisfaction that the voter has done the "right" thing by participating in the system. Beyond this, there is likely to be a higher marginal value for an ideologically oriented person to vote for a minor party: A relatively small number of votes can help establish a visible alternative which can influence the program of a major party and can influence voter preference in favor of the minor party's program. Besides the question of voting for candidates, it is generally worthwhile to vote on bond issues and other tax measures: Since taxation is inherently coercive, it is desirable to vote no on tax issues—and allow the individuals in a community who desire a particular program to finance it on a voluntary, consensual basis (just as we finance most facilities today, from supermarkets to churches)—without forcing the nonconsenting minority to share in the cost.
Assuming it makes sense to become sufficiently well informed to vote intelligently, it is difficult to justify voting for any candidate unless he or she is a principled person who is genuinely worthy of receiving one's vote. Never succumb to the "lesser of two evils" trap! For example, if voters were presented with a Joseph Stalin-type running for President against an Adolph Hitler-type, why would any right-minded citizen want to vote for either of them? Wouldn't we be better off if less than one percent of the voters cast a ballot, so that the 99 percent of non-voters—by staying home on election day—could effectively signify their hostility to both candidates?
Many Americans supported Richard Nixon for President in 1972 over George McGovern, because they viewed Nixon as the lesser of two evils. Those that voted for John Hospers, the Libertarian Party candidate, are among the few voters I know who are still proud of their choice for President in 1972. And the marginal importance of a vote for Hospers was clearly greater than an additional vote for either Nixon or McGovern. It is a refreshing item of political history that the Hospers campaign garnered one electoral vote—with the result that Hospers received only 16 less electoral votes than McGovern—and, like McGovern, lost to Nixon by a landslide. Since it was clear on the eve of the election that McGovern was going to be swamped, there was no good reason for any person who values freedom to support McGovern. And, by the same token, since the Nixon-Agnew ticket was clearly going to win, it made little sense for libertarian voters to increase the margin of victory, given Nixon's first term performance in imposing wage-price controls and otherwise expanding governmental power.
The national political scene has shifted markedly from the one-sided Republican presidential victory in 1972. According to a national survey taken in December for the Republican National Committee, there has been "unbelievable increases in cynicism toward politics and American institutions in general and toward the Republican Party in particular." The survey found that 40 percent of Americans considered themselves independents, compared to 42 percent who identified themselves as Democrats and only 18 percent who said they were Republicans.
Widespread voter protest against both major parties—and a repudiation of the "duty to vote" myth—is dramatically shown by the low turnout in last November's elections. It was not merely disinterest or apathy that led to the lowest voter turnout since 1942. Sixty-two percent of the voters stayed home on election day (a widely accepted estimate, based on the actual votes cast, measured against the known voting age population). (The U.S. Bureau of the Census claims that 55 percent of eligible voters failed to vote last November, based on its interviews with 100,000 eligible voters.) Of particular interest in terms of libertarian campaign objectives is the Census Bureau's finding that 64 percent of Americans between 18- to 20-years old and 53 percent of those 21 to 24 did not register in 1974—and, of those eligible to vote, only 21 percent of 18 to 20 year olds went to the polls (compared with 52 percent of 18 to 20 year olds who voted in 1972).
A study of the low 1974 turnout by Duke University's political science institute found that a large number of eligible voters made a conscious decision not to vote, and more than half of the eligible voters did not really care which party won—and concluded that people have lost faith in political parties as a means of solving national problems.
In an analysis of the upset victory of Maine governor James Longley—the first independent elected to a governor's office in nearly 50 years—columnist David Broder observed that many analysts are predicting that "the independents will replace the Democrats as the largest 'party' by 1976." Broder points to Longley's victory as showing how an independent presidential candidate might actually win in 1976. To the extent any independent candidate might be put up against President Ford by disgruntled conservatives and wage a campaign on a philosophical level—rather than pragmatic, consensus politics as usual—we would expect libertarian principles to be given more meaningful exposure in the ensuing debate.
It is a welcome sign of the times that a bill was recently introduced in the California Legislature which would enable voters to reject all candidates by adding a new category on the ballot: "None of the above is acceptable." Long advocated by the League of Non-Voters, a proposal of this type is discussed in Ridgway Foley's thoughtful article on election reform in this issue. We heartily endorse this proposal. And we are delighted to see signs of brightening prospects for libertarians to cast a meaningful ballot—either by marking on the ballot or writing in one of the increasing number of libertarian candidates—or, if no qualified candidate is available, by voting for "None of the above."
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Voter Independence and the “Duty to Vote” Myth".