Given the current campaign trajectory, voters will almost certainly face a November choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Many already wonder how they can possibly cast a vote in good conscience for either of those two. If you count yourself among that unhappy lot, here's good news: You don't have to. There's absolutely nothing wrong with sitting out the election if you feel like it. (You can vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, too, but a previous column covered that option.)
Americans are force-fed the opposite message every election season—usually by self-interested partisans trying to run up the score for their own teams, but sometimes by mind-numbingly conformist editorial writers of the sort who also write earnest reminders about wearing your seat belt. (From time to time there are even proposals to make voting mandatory.)
But once you start dissecting the please-vote platitudes, it quickly becomes evident that you should feel no guilt about skipping the polls. Those platitudes are:
(1) It's your civic duty. Really? Why? As Jason Brennan wrote on the Bleeding Heart Libertarians blog a couple of years ago, it's untenable to argue that people have a fundamental moral duty to vote. Rather, such a duty must derive from some other more basic obligation, such as the duty to be a good citizen.
Even that duty is worth scrutinizing: Where does it come from? What does it mean to be a good citizen in, say, North Korea or Saudi Arabia? But never mind: Let's assume there is such a duty here in the United States. Even so, you can discharge your obligation to be a good citizen in many different ways that don't entail voting, such as volunteering at the local rescue squad or helping out at a homeless shelter. There is no valid reason to argue that someone cannot be a good citizen unless he or she votes. In fact, Boy Scouts can earn a Citizenship merit badge—an emblem of good citizenship—even though most can't vote, and the merit badge requirements don't include casting a ballot.
In certain instances you might even have an obligation not to vote. If you sincerely believe the system is rigged, as Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump claim, then maybe you should abstain—lest you grant legitimacy to a system that doesn't deserve it.
(2) Not voting insults our veterans who fought for that right. But veterans fought for much more than just the right to vote. They fought for the right to attend a Jewish synagogue or a Lutheran church; the right to chant pro-Trump slogans at political rallies; the right to keep and bear arms; the right to sing the blues or in a barbershop quartet; and so on.
Every one of those rights also entails a corresponding right: the right not to do those things. You have a right to go to synagogue, and a right not to; you have a right to chant pro-Trump slogans at a Trump rally, and a right not to. It's no insult to veterans if you choose not to go to synagogue, not to attend Trump rallies, not to own a gun—or not to vote. Veterans fought (and troops now are fighting) to keep Americans free, not to keep them tied down with endless obligations.
(3) If you don't vote, you can't complain. Sure you can. Suppose you're kidnapped by ISIS radicals who give you the choice between being burned to death or hacked to death. If you refuse to pick either option, and the ISIS radicals decide to hack you to death, and you then object, would it be reasonable for the radicals to say you have no right to complain, since you didn't vote?
Voting is somewhat like that (especially this year!). Because while it's nice to think our individual votes can make a difference, they almost never do. According to Ilya Somin's book Democracy and Political Ignorance, the odds of a single vote influencing the outcome of an election are "possibly less than one in 100 million in the case of a modern U.S. presidential election. A recent analysis concluded that in the 2008 presidential election, American voters had a roughly one in 60 million chance of casting a decisive vote, varying from one in 10 million in a few small states to as low as one in 1 billion in some large states such as California."
The idea that you can complain only if you vote rests on the assumption that your vote might change the outcome: You had a chance to flip the result and didn't bother. Under that erroneous assumption, it's not just non-voters who can't complain; nobody can. That hardly seems right, does it?
Of course, the no-complaining argument might mean something different. It might mean that complaining is a privilege granted only to active members of the political community, and you earn membership by the act of voting. If that is true, then it follows that the more active you are, the more right you have to complain.
Under this theory, people who pay taxes have more right to complain than people who don't, and people who pay high taxes have more right to complain than people who pay low taxes, and people who give money to political campaigns have even more right to complain than that. By this logic, the Koch brothers have more right to complain than almost anybody—while a non-voting waitress who gets laid off because of a recent hike in the minimum wage has none. Hmmmm.
Despite the lousy choices and long odds, many of us vote anyway, because we get a charge out of doing so— rather like people who get a charge out of joining the office basketball pool. It's fun to take part in something even when the results are mostly out of our hands. But as with the office betting pool, it's perfectly rational to decline—and no moral stain on you if you do.
This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.