On election day, consider abstaining from ignorant voting

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Today, Americans will go to the polls to decide who will control the House and Senate, and also vote on numerous state races and ballot initiatives. As before every election, we are subjected to constant claims that we have a moral obligation to vote. In some cases, however, we can best serve our fellow citizens by abstaining from voting in situations where we are ignorant about the issues at stake. What I wrote on this subject on election day in 2012 remains relevant:

In many cases… we [are about to vote] on candidates and issues that we know very little about. It is rational for most voters to be ignorant about most issues, because the chance of casting a decisive ballot in an election is so extremely low. And the available evidence strongly suggests that much of the public is poorly informed about politics and public policy.

Even if you are an unusually well-informed voter, the enormous size, scope, and complexity of modern government ensure that there will be many issues and candidates about which you know very little….

It's unrealistic to expect that everyone will achieve a high level of knowledge about every race and every initiative. But if you find that you know little or nothing about a particular race or ballot question, you might want to consider simply not voting on it. As political philosopher Jason Brennan argues, voters have a moral duty to be at least reasonably well-informed about the issues they vote on, because the decisions they make affect not just themselves but all of society. John Stuart Mill put it well when he wrote that voting is not just an exercise of personal choice, but rather "the exercise of power over others." If you can't exercise that power in at least a minimally responsible manner, maybe you should not do so at all.

It would be dangerous to give government the power to forcibly exclude ignorant voters from the franchise. Incumbent political leaders could too easily abuse it to exclude their political opponents or to target unpopular minorities. But there is no such danger if a voter voluntarily chooses not to vote in a particular race because he or she decides they don't have enough knowledge to vote responsibly.
[Note: I have updated some of the links in this excerpt].

You might be tempted to think that, even if you know very little about the issues, you can still cast a well-informed ballot by using information "shortcuts," such as voting against incumbents when things seem to be going badly under their watch. Shortcuts can help in some cases. But they also be actively misleading, and often require considerable preexisting knowledge to use effectively.

You might also worry that if you and others with similar interests choose not to vote, those who do will bias government policy in favor of their own narrow interests and against yours. Fortunately, however, on most issues there is little or no correlation between narrow self-interest and the distribution of public opinion, after controlling for other relevant variables. Most voters want government policies that benefit society as a whole, not just themselves and their families. The problem is that many of them have very little understanding of how to achieve that laudable goal.

On a few issues, voters do prioritize narrow self-interest (e.g.— restrictions on smoking, which non-smokers support at much higher rates than smokers do). But even in these cases, a selfish but knowledgeable electorate, though far from ideal, may be less dangerous than a well-intentioned but ignorant one.

As I noted in the 2012 post, how ignorant you should be before it makes sense to abstain from voting may depend on how your knowledge stacks up relative to the rest of the likely electorate:

There is a legitimate argument to be had about how low your knowledge level needs to be before you should seriously consider abstaining. The answer depends in part on the knowledge level of the rest of the electorate. Even if you know very little about a given race or issue, you may be justified in voting if the rest of the probable electorate is even worse. But, at the very least, you should probably abstain if you know almost nothing. In that scenario, the average of the rest of the electorate will usually be better, or at least is unlikely to be worse.

In that same post, I explained that I try to practice what I preach. Because of the nature of my academic work and my longstanding interest in a number of political issues, I know more than the average voter does about a good many issues and races. But there are still cases where I think my knowledge is low enough that abstention is the right choice. When that happens, I do indeed abstain.

Some will argue that if you are politically ignorant, you have an absolute duty to study up on the issues until you become well-informed. I don't go that far (though I do believe many voters are falling short of what can reasonably be expected of them). Given the enormous size and complexity of modern government, and the huge number of races and ballot initiatives, few if any citizens have enough time and energy to become even moderately well-informed about all of the relevant issues. That's particularly true of those who have time-consuming jobs and family obligations.

Political ignorance isn't always morally reprehensible. In some cases, it isn't even reprehensible if our knowledge falls short of the very modest standards of the average voter. But when that happens, we should at least avoid inflicting that ignorance on our fellow citizens.