Election 2014

If You Don't Vote, You Can Still Complain As Much As You Want


It's that time again, when cheerful boosters of political participation start chirping a familiar Election Day tune:

If you don't vote, you can't complain!

This sentiment has become such a cliché you probably barely notice it anymore, right? But it's popping up everywhere from the Santa Monica Daily Press to random New Jersey signboards.

In everyday life the admonition makes sense, of course: I asked you what you wanted for dinner earlier today and you didn't have any good ideas, so now you'd better sit down, shut up, and eat your tofu stroganoff, thankyouverymuch.

But this same notion, when applied to behavior at the ballot box is actually a troubling perversion and conflation of the concepts of consent and free speech. 

reason cover

From my November 2012 Reason cover story, "Your Vote Doesn't Count":

For someone who complains about politics, policy, and politicians for a living, the prohibition on complaining by nonvoters strikes close to home. Again, this Election Day cliché is intuitively appealing. If someone invests in an enterprise, we generally recognize that he has more right than an outsider to determine the course of that enterprise. And voting feels like an investment: It takes time and perhaps costs money.

In his 1851 book Social Statics, the English radical Herbert Spencer neatly describes the rhetorical jujitsu surrounding voting, consent, and complaint, then demolishes the argument. Say a man votes and his candidate wins. The voter is then "understood to have assented" to the acts of his representative. But what if he voted for the other guy? Well, then, the argument goes, "by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority." And what if he abstained? "Why then he cannot justly complain…seeing that he made no protest." Spencer tidily sums up: "Curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted—whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine this." Indeed.

Whether there is a duty to be civically engaged, to act as a good citizen, is a separate question from the issue of voting. But if such a duty exists, there are many ways to perform it, including (perhaps especially) complaining. According to Mankiw's argument, the ignorant voter is a far less admirable citizen than the serial-letter-writing Tea Partier who can't be bothered to show up on Election Day.

The right to complain is, mercifully, unrelated to any hypothetical duty to vote. It was ensured, instead, by the Founders, all of whom were extraordinary bellyachers themselves. 

Read the whole piece for handy replies to other Election Day commonplaces, such as "every vote counts!" and "voting is a civic duty" and "voting is fun."

NEXT: GOP Election Victory Could Be Historic

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  1. I was born, therefore I consented.

    Isn’t that how it works nowadays?

    1. something, something roads

    2. SOSHUL KONTRAKKT!!1!1!!1one!!


    3. “Curiously enough, it seems that she gave her consent in whatever way she acted?whether she said yes, whether she said no, or whether she just laid back and thought of England!”

      So much for “yes means yes”.

    4. No one was stopping you from moving to the libertarian homeland in East Africa.

  2. You should at least be required to obtain a photo ID to complain.

    1. I was asked to produce a photo ID when I voted the weekend before last. I did and voted without incident. Racism wins again in Florida!

      1. I thought the giant pythons were winning?

        I can’t tell the players without a scorecard any more…

        1. I was quite surprised not to see pythons on the ballot.

          1. Pythons wouldn’t waste their time running for office.

            1. They’re masters in Not Being Seen.

            2. They’re too busy surprising people with the Inquisition.

              1. Well, their advantage is that nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.

                1. Exactly. Why mess with a good thing? Now fetch the comfy chair!

  3. Whether I vote and even who I vote for is irrelevant as to my right and ability to complain about government.

    1. It’s just as irrelevant as your vote!

      1. I voted for you to be exiled. I may have misused the write-in blank in so doing.

        1. It’s ok, your vote doesn’t matter. Misuse away.

          1. Damn, really? I wrote Warty in for Sheriff in my county.

            1. Did you really? Tell me, “Yes, really.” Warty Hugeman?

          2. That’s what you say now, pre-exile.

    2. And your right to complain is irrelevant as to my right to question why you did nothing to stop what you are now complaining about.

      1. When your choices are a douche or a turd sandwich, sometimes the best response is a no-vote.

        Not voting sometimes speaks more than voting. Fighting the machine requires more than just “voting for the lesser of two evils.”

  4. I would put it that you can’t justifiably complain if you won’t do ANYTHING. I’m not picky about what. Give to a cause or a charity. Circulate petitions. Protest (I many mock you, but I won’t deny you the right to complain. Also, please, pick up after yourselves). It needen’t be VOTE, but do SOMETHING other than slowly dissolve into goo.

    1. Seems to me like it’s worth at least “getting on the board” — If there’s nobody worth voting for, then write in alternatives. Even joke candidates will do. One of the two “major” parties will still win, but it would have to impact future strategizing if they only got a plurality, and could see that there was really 10%, or 20%, or 40% of the electorate out there that did bother voting, but couldn’t bear to vote for them. And at least it might further erode the winner’s ability to claim a “mandate”.

    2. Isn’t there an amendment somewhere in that perfect constitution of ours that protects my right to dissolve into goo?

  5. Hell, write a blog of your compliants, so there’s some WORK involved, and you maybe spark some discussion.

    1. AHA! Somewhere in there is the concession that complaining IS doing something.

      What you want to be against is people who don’t complain. You’ll find your goo there.

  6. Consent of the governed is a subtle concept meaning that the governed have not resorted to the guillotine.

    Not yet.

    1. Usually it just means the governed don’t really have a lot of say.

  7. I was just informed by a concern-troll friend that I needed to “have some respect”, because “people have died”.

    To which my response was, “Huh? Lighten up, Francis.”

    People get so fucking retarded about this.

    1. Fuck! People have died?

      1. I’ve heard a rumor that people die every motherfuckin’ day.

        1. With a couple of individual case report exceptions from the Middle East, Life has a 100% mortality rate!

          1. We must outlaw it!

            For the children, amirite?

          2. A couple? (raises one eyebrow)

    2. People have died voting? Is it that dangerous? I had no idea.

      1. +1 Pakistani suicide bomber in front of the polls

    3. This. Did people really sacrifice themselves so I could one day choose between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama?

      If so, seems like a waste.

      1. Exactly. Gerrymandering pretty much shits all over the people who died for voting rights.

      2. ^^ Precisely, CPA. Precisely 🙂

      3. Yo asshole, people in most countries in the world would kill for that choice. Wow. Just wow.

        1. No they don’t

  8. If you don’t vote, you can’t complain!

    Proper response is “And who’s going to make me stop complaining? You?”

  9. “Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods”

    – H. L. Mencken

    1. Yes, and he said that back when it was far less true than today.

  10. Recently I’ve heard, “If you don’t vote, you don’t count.” I guess they mean that nothing happens outside of the state.

    1. I remain convinced that anti-government feeling remains high in this country, resulting in a not-unnatural apathy, given that the “choices” are often between BIG GOVERNMENT and BIG GOVERNMENT.

      That’s because we have sufficient vestiges of a free society to just close our eyes and operate solely on a local level.

      1. Huh? You have to vote to control your local government, too.

  11. Voter registration sounds a lot like gun ownership registration. Nothing bad can possibly happen from that, right?

    1. Voting is a political right, self-defense if a pre-political right.

      1. *is*

        1. I assumed you were typing in 18th century font.

    2. Gun registration is a problem because it leads to confiscation.

      Not sure what an analogous problem there would be with voter registration.

      1. Jury summons?

  12. The only proper way to do voting is to let people vote and have them wait in a holding pen until all the votes are counted, announce the results, then release the voters.

    We can limit the voting to 2 hours so people don’t have to wait that long. Absentees are S.O.L. Show up early and wait in the pen for two hours, or show up late and wait in the voting line for two hours.

    This eliminates all the need for registration: one man, one vote, one two-hour wait. The beauty is the potential for mob violence after the results are announced or if the wait gets too long.

    1. In less advanced countries they just make you dip your finger in a pot of the blue water they use to flush airliner toilets. From the look of it your finger is stained for a month.

  13. The free market determines how valuable one’s vote is.

    So far the highest offer is I’ve had for my vote is $0.00, before taxes.

    1. Well look who doesn’t live in Chicago! Stop bragging.

  14. In a one-party district, I am insulted by the assertion that if I don’t vote for the Democrap of THEIR choice, I “can’t complain”.

    1. I find that intra-party fighting is often more bitter and vitriolic than inter-party fighting. The platforms usually differ in such pointless ways that they have nothing to debate except who is more corrupt. But yeah, when your district is decided in a primary you are well and truly screwed.

  15. Say a man votes and his candidate wins. The voter is then “understood to have assented” to the acts of his representative. But what if he voted for the other guy? Well, then, the argument goes, “by taking part in such an election, he tacitly agreed to abide by the decision of the majority.” And what if he abstained? “Why then he cannot justly complain?seeing that he made no protest.” Spencer tidily sums up: “Curiously enough, it seems that he gave his consent in whatever way he acted?whether he said yes, whether he said no, or whether he remained neuter! A rather awkward doctrine this.”

    That’s a strawman. Few people would say the act of voting for viable candidate B means implicitly consents to candidate A taking office. Rather, you implicitly consent to be bound by the results of legally-conducted elections by continuing to reside in, and benefit from, the territory subject to those laws. Whether one votes or not one has already consented to this.

    The question is, how credible a person’s complaints are when they had the opportunity to prevent what they are now complaining about and chose not to.

    1. The question is, how credible a person’s complaints are when they had the opportunity to prevent what they are now complaining about and chose not to.

      I think the flaw in your arguement is in assuming that it ever happens that the choices can be said to offer an opportunity to prevent what one is now complaining about.

      Also, I am not consenting to be bound by the results of an election by continuing to reside in the territory where an election has been held. Get the fuck out of my territory.

  16. I did vote when I didn’t vote: NONE OF THE ABOVE.

    Now, feck off, civil duty slaver.

  17. I think Ann Coulter said those who vote for Libertarians should be drowned. Unfortunately, that might mean me because I voted for Andrei Marrou and Harry Lorrayne back in the day.

    I think Andrei Marrou was a friend to the Jews unlike many Libertarians today.

    “There’s no need to fear. Underzog is here.”

  18. In the words of the late, great George Carlin:
    “I have solved this political dilemma in a very direct way: I don’t vote. On Election Day, I stay home. I firmly believe that if you vote, you have no right to complain. Now, some people like to twist that around. They say, ‘If you don’t vote, you have no right to complain,’ but where’s the logic in that? If you vote, and you elect dishonest, incompetent politicians, and they get into office and screw everything up, you are responsible for what they have done. You voted them in. You caused the problem. You have no right to complain. I, on the other hand, who did not vote ? who did not even leave the house on Election Day ? am in no way responsible for what these politicians have done and have every right to complain about the mess that you created.”

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