Voting

Justifying a Moral Duty to Vote is a Lot Harder than You Might Think

Political philosopher Jason Brennan explains why.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

In the midst of the 2020 election, Americans are bitterly divided over a wide range of political issues. But there is broad agreement that we have a duty to vote, if at all possible—at least barring some kind of dire exigent circumstances. The idea that we have a moral duty to vote is so taken for granted that many think that it's just obviously right, and don't bother to provide an argument for it. But, as it turns out, the existence of a moral duty to vote is far from obvious, and justifying it turns out to be much harder than many people think. Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan, a leading academic critic of the idea, has a good summary of the reasons why it is difficult to defend well:

1. Overcome the particularity problem: It's not enough to point to some general duty, G, which you argue people possess, and then to point out that voting is a way of satisfying G. It's not even enough to show that voting is the best way to satisfy G. You need to show voting is the obligatory way of satisfying G.

For instance, suppose someone says, "You should exercise civic virtue, therefore vote!" The problem–which should be obvious but for some reason isn't–is that there are lots of ways of exhibiting civic virtue other than by voting. Indeed, voting isn't even especially good.

Even if voting were the best, that wouldn't obviously make it obligatory. Suppose you have a duty to do productive work…. Maybe the best job you could take, given your talents, is medical doctor. But that doesn't mean you are obligated to be a medical doctor…..

2. You need to deal with bad voters and bad voting: Most defenders of the duty to vote think there is merely a general duty to vote some way, not a specific duty to vote well, for the better side. But then your argument for a duty to vote nevertheless needs to explain, carefully, why the voters for the worse parties or worse candidates aren't doing something morally bad and wrong…..

Many of the supposed arguments for a general duty to vote seem to imply that you must vote well, not merely that you must vote.

3. You need to follow the consequences of your argument. For instance, as [Geoffrey] Brennan and Lomasky have pointed out, one popular argument for a duty to vote leads to absurd conclusions. "If no one voted, it'd be a disaster, therefore you should vote." First, it wouldn't be a disaster, but secondly, notice the argument works even better for farming: "If no one farmed, we would all starve to death, therefore you should be a farmer…."

4. Don't magically assume that voters know the right way to vote and that voting well is easy. It isn't. Read up on voter psychology, which says most people just follow what others do and for most people, politics is not about policy…. Consider how hard it is to be informed, not merely of the particulars, but of the social science needed to understand causation. Consider how difficult it is to predict what politicians will do if elected….

All of the above points are well taken. I would add a few more.

First, if you want to argue not only that you have a duty to vote, but that voting should be made mandatory, you have to meet an even higher burden of proof. In addition to showing that there is a moral duty to vote, you must prove that it is an important enough duty to justify coercive enforcement, with all the attendant risks that go along with the use of force by the state.

For example, if the authorities are going to track down and arrest violators (or even just impose fines on them), you will increase the number of encounters between citizens and police where they latter might use excessive force, engage in racial profiling, or commit other abuses. The benefits of mandatory voting, whatever they might be, have to be great enough to outweigh these very real costs.

Second, let's say that your goal in promoting increased turnout is to make sure that the "right" party or candidate wins. For example, perhaps you believe that the Democrats have far better policies than the Republicans, and they are more likely to win if there is higher turnout. That's a perfectly reasonable view! But if that is your reason for urging more people to vote, you are not actually making an argument for a general duty to vote. You're just saying it would be good if more people voted conditional on their voting the right way. If conditions changed such that higher turnout benefits the "wrong" party rather than the right one, you should (if you are consistent) prefer lower turnout in that world. Consider the following two hypothetical scenarios:

A. Turnout is very high (say 90%) but your preferred party and policies almost always lose. The quality of government policy is considerably worse than it would be if election outcomes were different.

B. Turnout is much lower (say 40%), but your preferred party and policies almost always win. The quality of policy is much better than it would be if turnout were higher.

If you prefer B to A, there's nothing wrong with that. But it means you either don't really believe there is a general obligation to vote, or that any such obligation is weak enough to be readily outweighed by the goal of improving public policy. It also means that most people actually do not have an obligation to vote if the real world is more like scenario B than A.

Finally, it's worth emphasizing, as Jason recognizes, that bad voting can often be worse than no voting at all. I summarized the reasons why here:

[M]ost advocates of compulsory voting [and also of a duty to vote that is not mandatory]… contend that going to the polls is a duty we owe society, in order to make the political system work better. But this overlooks crucial ways in which it might actually make the system worse. On average, those who choose not to vote are even less well-informed about politics and public policy than current voters are. If they are forced to go to the polls, they will exacerbate the already severe problem of political ignorance. When relatively ignorant voters go to the polls, they aren't doing the rest of society a favor. They are instead inflicting harm on us by making poor choices and incentivizing politicians to cater to their ignorance.

Admittedly, there are some situations where political ignorance can actually be beneficial, and ignorant voters might make better decisions than more knowledgeable ones. I discuss a few such scenarios in my book on political ignorance. But such cases are unusual exceptions. Most of the time, the most ignorant potential voters can better serve society by staying home on election day than by voting….

What is true of voters who are simply ignorant also applies to the many who may be relatively knowledgeable, but are highly biased in their evaluation of the facts they learn about, acting like "political fans" cheering on their side rather than as truth- seekers.

The problem with ignorant and biased voting is not just that it might enable the "wrong" candidate or party to win out of the choices before the electorate, but that it also reduces the quality of those choices to begin with. Politicians and parties that know they are facing a largely ignorant electorate, with lots of "political fans," are likely to run on platforms that seek to cater to that ignorance and bias. Donald Trump did so in a particularly dramatic and extreme way in 2016. But more conventional politicians also routinely use similar tactics, even if in less extreme ways. The result is a general degradation in the quality of government policy and political discourse. Whichever party ends up winning, we all end up losing compared to what might be achieved in a world where political ignorance and bias were  not so seere.

There are steps people can take to become more knowledgeable and less biased voters. But those who haven't made the effort to do so may, at least in many situations, benefit society more by not voting, and instead carrying out their civic duty in some other way.

Many argue that we can overcome political ignorance and voter bias through effective use of "information shortcuts" and increased civic education. This turns out to be a much tougher task than advocates assume. I discuss some of the reasons why in greater detail in Chapters 4 and 7 of my book Democracy and Political Ignorance. But if you take this view, you at least have to concede that no one has a duty to vote unless and until they have gotten the necessary education, learned how to use information shortcuts well, or some combination of both.

One of the strengths of Julia Maskivker's important recent book defending a duty to vote is that she recognizes the force of many of the above criticisms. Among other things, she agrees that there is no duty to vote unless the person has become reasonably well-informed about the relevant issues.  She in fact argues that most citizens have a duty to both vote and become well-informed. In my view, she substantially underestimates the difficulty of the latter, and the extent to which it can be overcome by a combination of shortcuts, education, and reform of the media. But even if  Maskivker, it follows that most people do not  have any duty to vote until such time as we have actually achieved the necessary increases in political knowledge (though they may, on this view, be morally culpable for failing to increase their knowledge).

It might still be possible to justify a moral duty to vote. But it's a much tougher task than most people tend to assume.

UPDATE: In this 2014 post, I criticized another widespread belief about voting: that if you don't vote, you have no right to complain about the results.

NEXT: Tennessee Cops Raid Wrong Home, Point Guns at Naked Woman While Looking for Teen Suspect

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  1. Do you really want everyone voting?

    1. I don’t think voting should be mandatory but I also don’t think the government should put artificial roadblocks up to make voting more difficult.

      1. That’s not what I said, and you know it.

        1. I never said you did.

      2. Do you think the government should take any measures to ensure that the vote is fair and free of fraud?

        1. Any measures at all? Of course. But a lot of the specific measures that have been adopted seem to have more to do with suppressing minority voting than with actually doing anything about fraud.

          1. How about this for a measure.

            People who want to absentee vote need to request a ballot. This way, the government knows the person actually intends to vote and knows the address to send the ballot to. The government avoids sending a blank ballot to an incorrect address, which might lead to fraud, or people not getting their ballot.

            Is that a reasonable measure?

            1. The standard is whether the measure prevents more fraudulent votes than it prevents legitimate voters from voting.

              Presumably any ballots must be signed and the signatures verified against the signature from when the person registered to vote. So if, ie, I steal your blank ballot and try mailing it in, the election department will notice the signatures don’t match. Does that alleviate your fears?

              1. Not really. Ballot signature verification is pretty weak. It can be beaten if you just print the name. Here read this.

                https://www.reviewjournal.com/opinion/opinion-columns/victor-joecks/victor-joecks-signature-verification-is-a-joke-heres-how-i-beat-the-system-2072456/

                But I take it you think simply asking people to request a ballot is too high a burden?

                1. I think that in general, expecting people to behave like responsible adults is totally at odds with everything we know about human nature. If we lived in a nation of grownups you’d be right but we don’t. And I place a higher value on increasing participation than I do on making people face the consequences of their own irresponsible behavior.

                  Which is not to say that I oppose reasonable steps to combat fraud, but most state election officials seem not to think it’s as big a problem as you do. Voter suppression is far better documented than voter fraud.

                  1. “Voter suppression is far better documented than voter fraud.”

                    Better documented, in part, because it is far more common.

                  2. You realize, we just had an election in New Jersey thrown out by the judge due to massive voter fraud.

                    When you have fraud like this, everyone’s vote is suppressed.

                    1. And I’m not saying take no steps to prevent fraud. I’m saying I’m not convinced that mail in ballots are going to be the problem that the right is telling us they will be, and most state election officials, both Democrat and Republican, agree with me.

                      Please recall that the worst instances of voter fraud in US history — the 1960 presidential election, Mayor Daley in Chicago (see, just to show I’m fair I mentioned one from each side), all involved in-person voting. Is there any actual evidence to support the claim that mail in voting will actually be worse? Not speculation; actual evidence?

                    2. Sorry, my fingers got ahead of my brain. To show I’m fair and giving examples for both sides I meant to mention Mayor Daley for the Democrats and the 2018 Georgia governor’s race for the Republicans.

                    3. ” Is there any actual evidence to support the claim that mail in voting will actually be worse? Not speculation; actual evidence?”

                      Yes. Since 1982, there are over 1000 proven instances of voter fraud within the United States that have resulted in charges or court decisions.

                      https://www.heritage.org/voterfraud

                      Of that, more than 200 were due to absentee ballot fraud. Despite absentee ballots making a much smaller proportion of the actual ballots cast.

                    4. The election is going to be a mess.

                      But there is no evidence it’s going to be stolen. 200 absentee ballot-based court cases since 1982 (with various levels of intentionality, I’d wager) do not have me worried.

                    5. Armchair Lawyer, since 1982 there have been hundreds of millions of votes cast. If the best you can do is complain about 1000 instances of proven voter fraud, well, that’s not a bad record overall.

                    6. We’ve got plenty of signs. (Evidence comes after the fact, so we don’t have that yet).

                      Let’s start with the rejection rate. What % of absentee ballots are rejected? We’re seeing 1% up to 10% (or more) of absentee ballots rejected. Normally, it’s not a big problem, because absentee ballots make up a small number of votes. But if they make up the vast majority of votes…

                      What happens if in a close election, 10% of ballots are “rejected”?

                      That’s a bad sign.

                    7. Krycheck,

                      As you keep pointing out, it’s not the total number of ballots. It’s the comparison to the number of voters suppressed. Since you’re worried about voter suppression.

                      So the proper comparison is how many cases of voter suppression there are, as documented by a court proceeding? Can you document this? Can you document more than 1000 cases of voter suppression (Note, not individuals, but cases, which is different) via court proceedings since 1982?

                    8. In terms of the impact of voter suppression, you can start by taking a look at some of these graphs, which speak for themselves:

                      https://www.google.com/search?q=voter+suppression+statistics+2018&tbm=isch&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjOrPKuhbrrAhUL0FMKHXWIDxEQrNwCKAB6BQgBENkB&biw=1349&bih=657

                      I will also note that if you are concerned about voter fraud, you should join me in calling for the abolition of the electoral college, which makes fraud easier than it would be otherwise. Here’s why:

                      In 2016, if someone had wanted to actually steal the election, under a popular vote system they would have needed to steal just over 3 million votes. However, with the electoral college, they only need to steal 80,000 votes across three states to change the outcome. Which of those is easier? In fact, even if 10% of mail in votes get tossed out, that matters more in close states like Wisconsin and Pennsylvania than it would if Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are just added to the national total.

                      There is, by the way, pretty good evidence that Trump may have won Wisconsin because of voter suppression. The number of voters turned away in Milwaukee, who would have largely voted Democrat, is larger than the margin by which he won the state.

              2. No. Nobody is going to compare the signatures unless they already have an independent reason to suspect that someone other than the registered voter cast that person’s vote. How often does the store clerk check to see that the signature on your credit card matches the one you put on the slip?

                1. They do check, but typically it’s an untrained ballot worker. As noted above, printing your name often works. The only case where it was caught was someone replacing their entire name with just their first initial and a line, then last initial, then a line.

                  This election will be much worse. There will be a heavy assumption just to count the signature, no matter what it looks like, so long as it’s the right name. And so many more people will be screened, it’ll increase the load on the ballot workers substantially.

          2. That’s actually a racist statement if you think about it.
            It implies that minorities are helpless children who are unable to function as adults, and I find that repulsive.

            1. They treat minorities like that in virtually every realm.

              1. Noting and attempting to alleviate disparate impacts is not treating anyone like they’re helpless any more than Medicare denies the elderly agency.

                You just keep telling yourself that you are the one that truly respect blacks but they just can’t see it due to their low IQs, as your party gets whiter and whiter.

                1. Sarcastro, when I was growing up, many years ago, just as the earth’s crust was starting to cool, I lived in the district of a congressman who actually said, during a stump speech, that “I have always been a friend to the n*gg*rs.”

                  I have sometimes wondered if he reincarnated as some of our commenters here.

            2. Nowhere did I say whites are any more likely to behave like responsible adults than blacks are.

    2. Yes.

      Even assholes like you.

    3. Absolutely not. The general population is willing ignorant to the ways and means of government. I have seen enough segments of Jay Leno’s “Jay Walking” to understand that a vast segment of our population has no idea how government functions. This is how government desires it Government ran schools do not educate the population in the ways of government. I hate terms like “poll tax” being attached to it, but I fully endorse some type of test to show you at least have a basic idea of how government functions. This is part of US Naturalization process ( I have helped a couple of immigrants prepare for their test). I fail to see why we cannot require the same of citizens registering to vote.

  2. I am not fond of you Ignorant Voter thesis. I find most people vote according to the community they belong to. Most turn out the vote efforts are decidedly partisan, attempting to get more of “our” people to vote than the “other guys” people.

    I have however tried to vote in almost all elections since I became eligible, however in the 2016 Presidential Election I consciously decided not to vote for either major party candidate and decided voting for a third party would be a waste of effort.

    1. “and decided voting for a third party would be a waste of effort.”

      The same is true for voters living in most partisan territories. Instead of voting to make a difference in the result, you are voting to be counted in the percentage of voting citizens.

    2. “I find most people vote according to the community they belong to. Most turn out the vote efforts are decidedly partisan, attempting to get more of “our” people to vote than the “other guys” people.”

      How did you find this out about “most people”? The empirical evidence is overwhelming that most eligible voters are ignorant about basic political matters. There’s little reason to think they’re knowledgeable about specific issues in any given election, either.

    3. Voting for a major party is also a waste of effort — arguably more so, because a single vote has very little effect on the prospects of a major party, but a minor party increases its influence by a noticeably fraction with each additional vote it gets.

  3. Missing from the list is consciencious objection. Voters elect governments. Governments impose things on the unwilling by force. Maybe you don’t want to be complicit in that use of force.

    The Tweedledum Party is dead set on hunting down and imprisoning weed smokers.

    The Tweedledee Party is dead set on hunting down and imprisoning pronoun misusers.

    One of the two is gonna win, and maybe you don’t want to accept any responsibility for either imprisoned weed smokers, or imprisoned pronoun misusers.

    1. Lee, in my youth I would have agreed with you that there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between the two parties. In fact, I used to be a libertarian.

      That was before the GOP put us trillions in debt, gave us a judiciary that allows the police to do pretty much whatever they want, allowed our infrastructure to go to hell, started the Iraq war, and created the Department of Homeland Security. And that’s just the issues I suspect you and I agree on.

      Even if the threat to imprison pronoun misusers weren’t a gross exaggeration and that were actually looming on the horizon, after Trump, the Tweedeldum/Tweedledee claim is just ridiculous. Yeah, with the Democrats in power, you might have to pay a little more in taxes so poor children can have health care, but I’ll take it, and would even if I didn’t agree with single payer health care.

      1. I find your attribution curious. How, precisely, did the GOP put us trillions in debt but the Democrats not do exactly the same thing every time they were in power? How do you blame the GOP for police abuse but ignore all the D votes over time that also contributed to the problem? How, in fact, do you blame anything from your list except the DHS on the GOP? (And even that fiasco had bipartisan support.)

        Tweedeldum and Tweedeldumber seems to be a quite accurate way of looking at our two political parties.

        1. Democrats and Republicans are both big spenders but Democrats raise taxes to pay for it rather than throw it on a credit card. Reagan was our first massive debt president who told us we could have great services without having to pay for it.

          Without knowing which specific votes you have in mind I can’t respond on the police issue, but please note that I specifically said the GOP gave us a judiciary that allows police abuse to run rampant. If you care about police abuse, Democrat judges are far more likely to rein in the police than are Republican ones. That’s also true on Fourth Amendment issues.

          As I’ve said before, both parties believe in big government but Dems want to use it to do things for people and Rs want to use it to do things to people. That’s a not insignificant difference. And I forgot to mention on my original list the GOP panders to open racism and has become the anti science party too.

          1. ” Democrats raise taxes to pay for it”

            Ha ha. Ha ha..

            1. Laugh all you like but typically deficits do go up under Republicans and down under Democrats.

              1. When Republicans are in charge of at least one house, they help control spending. Not when either party rules it all.

              2. Depends what you mean by “under”

                You just talking about the Presidency, or the House (and Senate) too?

                1. When both political branches are controlled by a single party, Democrats reduce deficits even if it means raising taxes. Often in the face of Republican filibustering and threats to shut down the government.

                  When power is split, and the White House is Democratic, the Republicans suddenly discover fiscal responsibility. See Clinton and Obama administrations. However, if the Democrats control Congress (or at least once House of it) and the White House is Republican, debt doesn’t matter.

                  Sarcastro is right. Of all the hypocrisy in Washington this is one of the most blatant.

                  1. “When both political branches are controlled by a single party, Democrats reduce deficits even if it means raising taxes. Often in the face of Republican filibustering and threats to shut down the government.”

                    Evidence does not support this. One of the last times this was true was 2009-2010. This showed the largest increase in the deficit since WWII (Not counting 2020).

                    Likewise, Democrats took the House and Presidency in 1993 and 1994. 1993 was the highest deficit in the entire 1990s. 1994 was 3rd from highest.

                    1. What was going on in 2009, I wonder?

                    2. Right, in 1993 and 2009, Democrats took over from huge deficit Republicans. What, you expect an incoming Democrat to wave a magic wand and suddenly the deficit he inherited is no longer there?

                    3. Oddly enough, as soon as the GOP took control of the House, that’s what happened. Deficits dropped.

                      When the Democrats took control in those years…deficits spiked.

                      That belies your assumptions

                    4. Not odd. Clinton and Obama spent their first two years cleaning up the economic mess that they inherited from their Republican predecessors. A mess that was left in part because Republican members of Congress don’t care about the debt when a Republican is in the White House.

              3. One of the more blatant conservative double-standards out there.

                When things they like happen under a Republican President, it’s all him. And the national debt doesn’t really matter.

                When good things happen under a Democratic President, including the near 100% correlation to budget surpluses, they say you need to get a lot more nuanced in your examination, even as they suddenly cry about every new policy increasing the deficit.

                1. “When good things happen under a Democratic President, including the near 100% correlation to budget surpluses,”

                  Seriously? Near 100% correlation? Really? You’re going to stick with that? You really want me to show you how wrong you are?

                  1. Under Jimmy Carter the deficit shrank.
                    Then Ronald Reagan cut taxes on the rich and blew up the deficit.

                    Under Bill Clinton the deficit shrank. In fact, it went away!

                    Then George Bush cut taxes on the rich and blew up the deficit.

                    Under Barack Obama the deficit expanded to tackle the Great Recession and then shrank and stabilized.

                    Then Donald Trump—a totally orthodox Republican in this respect—cut taxes on the rich and blew up the deficit.

      2. Yes, you’ll take all right — mine and everybody else’s taxes.

        How can you justify switching from Republican to Democrat because the Republicans spent too much?

        Good golly Miss Molly.

        1. They both spend. The question is whether to pay for it by raising revenue or max out our credit cards.

          1. Hence a choice between two evils. Some elect not to play.

      3. It was Obama who doubled the debt.

      4. My point seems to have been misunderstood. I am not trying to argue about current political parties, I’m making a point about moral philosophy.

        if you vote for Candidate A, then if he is elected, you have some element of moral responsibility for what he does with the weapon – state power – you have given him. You might prefer not to accept such responsibilty.

        Of course some folk will argue that you are just as morally responsible for your omissions as for your actions. But this is mostly a consequentialist argument, and we are not all consequentialists.

        Thus in a war, conscientious objectors refuse to take part – even if they are in no doubt that their own side winning would be better than the other side winning. They do not wish to take moral responsibility for the killing their side does.

        The argument that all sides are equally horrible is quite a different argument, which obviously will come down differently according to the circumstances.

        1. if you vote for Candidate A, then if he is elected, you have some element of moral responsibility for what he does with the weapon – state power – you have given him.

          I have talked to a large number of 2016 Trump voters who will fight you to the death over this statement. They give all the moral responsibility of their Trump to Clinton.

  4. Free citizens can vote or not vote, their choice.

    A single vote has as much effect as yelling at the manager to pull the starter.

  5. The moral duty to vote is similar to the moral duty to serve on juries. It prevents a professional “voting class” from assuming perpetual control over government. We see this all the time when murderous cops ask for trial by judge, not by jury. They know that the “judicial class” will be on their side, whereas the public would be on the side of justice.

    That fact that politicians know this and must pander to the great unwashed is the purpose of the system, not its drawback. Your endless “political ignorance” posts are as tiresome as the “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” arguments. Voting based on vague feelings, or as a part of your community, or by flipping a coin, is as valid as voting by deep study of the issues. It’s the responsibility of the people seeking votes to make arguments that will attract voters to their cause. To the extent that they cannot do this, that is their problem.

    1. “The moral duty to vote is similar to the moral duty to serve on juries.”

      There is no moral duty to serve on juries since juries are not morally required at all.

      “It prevents a professional “voting class” from assuming perpetual control over government.”

      Besides the fact that this probably isn’t a true conclusion (the voting class exercises power of the currently non-voting class, and will cause them to follow the voting class), it also assumes that there is a moral duty to prevent the voting class from assuming perpetual control over government, something that must be argued and proven and not merely asserted.

      “Voting based on vague feelings, or as a part of your community, or by flipping a coin, is as valid as voting by deep study of the issues.”

      You do not understand either Professor Somin or Brennan’s arguments. There are a lot of ways to be “a part of your community” that don’t involve voting. (Volunteering, for instance.) And voting “based on vague feelings” can lead people to vote incorrectly. I don’t mean morally incorrectly, I mean they make category errors. Suppose I’m a voter who thinks that X policy will improve the polity and my community. There are two candidates, A and B, and I understand A supports X, based on my feelings. However, my feelings are wrong; in fact A opposes X. Worse, B actually supports X. If I vote for A I’m voting incorrectly, and in a way that cannot be morally justified, let alone morally required. The issue is not one, as you say, of “valid[ity]”.

      “To the extent that they cannot do this, that is their problem.”

      The problem is that they can do it, but they do it in a misleading way. Have you ever participated in a push poll? Did you know John McCain sired a foreign child out of marriage? Many South Carolina voters did know this during the 2000 primary, despite the fact that it wasn’t true.

      1. “juries are not morally required”

        Weird. There is, of course, no abstract system of morality. I interpret “moral duty” as “what people should do in order to create and perpetuate a system under which they want to live.” If we want a system of justice where cases are decided by juries of the people rather than judges, people need to serve on juries. If we want a system of government where rules and representatives are decided by the choices of ordinary people, ordinary people need to go and make those choices. If we want a system where the government pays for services, we need to pay our taxes.

        Jurors and voters will sometimes make mistakes. It is the job of the people trying to attain their votes to convince them to vote the way they want. In a free society and in an adversarial system, that means that the various sides try to present their points of view in the best way they can. That can include dubious means, and then it’s the responsibility of the other side to counter those means, perhaps with dubious means of their own. (That old legal saw about “pound the table” comes to mind.)

        The moral duty of voting doesn’t go away if your vote isn’t going to change who wins, or if you’re not sure for whom to vote. The moral duty of voting exists as long as you want your officials chosen by voting.

        I have a take, that evolution results in sufficiently complex animals landing on different places on an altruism / selfishness axis, because both are useful for survival under various circumstances. The notion of “moral duty” grows from that, and is a way of providing for self-organizing collective action when no single individual is necessary to accomplish something but a large group of actors is nevertheless required.

        1. “If we want a system of justice where cases are decided by juries of the people rather than judges, people need to serve on juries.”

          First, that’s tautological. “We must have jurors because we want juries” doesn’t tell us anything about whether the desire for jurors is moral, much less whether the implementation is morally required. Second, it isn’t true. You don’t need compulsory conscription to have an army. We know mandating jurors isn’t required to have juries because we have elections without mandating voting. So long as a sufficient number of people participate voluntarily, the compulsion is unnecessary. Use your last example. Does a system of taxation require that every person pay the same amount of taxes? Or even if that every person pay taxes at all? No.

          “The moral duty of voting doesn’t go away if your vote isn’t going to change who wins…”

          That concedes that the argument for a moral duty for voting is not consequentialist, which neuters the argument you just made (“If we want…people need to serve on juries…”).

          “…or if you’re not sure for whom to vote.”

          Examine this claim carefully. Suppose you think people have a moral duty to vote, but no obligation to be sure for whom to vote. They could satisfy their moral obligation by selecting their votes by coin flip, or by mistakenly voting for X when they intended to vote for Y. A person could satisfy this moral obligation even if they don’t want “officials chosen by voting.”

          “The notion of “moral duty” grows from that…”

          This is a denial of moral objectivism, which means us having a discussion about morality is a waste of our time. I wish you had led with this.

          1. “is a waste of our time”, “is a denial of moral objectivism”

            Since moral objectivism is false, of course I deny it, and the waste of time is dealing with people who think it’s true. Morality and ethics are systems for improving the state of people interacting with each other, and as such, are decidedly on the altruism end of the altruism / selfishness axis. Moral duty simply means that if we want nice things, we need to act in a way that brings those nice things about. What those things may be is determined by a host of different factors, and will not be the same everywhere.

            I stand by my very simple formulation – if we want a system where we choose our government by voting, then we have a “moral duty” to vote.

  6. I would have thought it was virtually impossible, so, no, it’s not harder than I’d think.

  7. The political class has had two hundred years to rig the system, now American politicians are re-elected on rates not far from Saddam’s Iraq and the USSR in it’s glory days.

    Further we have even seen American Congressional seats passed around to family members as if it were a hereditary title.

    Voting doesn’t matter. The political class is an entrenched as the Federal class is rich.

    1. Umm, watch Joe-Joe-Joe Kennedy loose a primary next week.

      Well, the primary is Sept 1st.
      Maybe we’ll have results by November 1st.

    2. US Congress

      2018 – 91%
      2016 – 97%
      2014 – 95%
      2012 – 90%

      https://www.thoughtco.com/do-congressmen-ever-lose-re-election-3367511

    3. My hypothesis is that people claiming “a rigged system” simply want to be the one fascist leader.

      1. Did you check my facts before you developed that hypothesis?

        Because if you didn’t, its quite embarrassing for you.

        1. You mixed up cause and effect. The results you cite are only the effect of voters preferring incumbents.

          1. And the consequence of surrender by those who expect to lose . . . and the consequence of comparing percentage of vote to percentage of victory . . . and the consequence of periodic redistricting that causes many races to feature no incumbent . . . and several other factors.

          2. And your basing your second hypothesis on what?

            Feelings?

    4. now American politicians are re-elected on rates not far from Saddam’s Iraq and the USSR in it’s glory days.

      It was a talking point, though it was not called such at the time, that the US Congress had a lower turnover rate than the Soviet Union did, a single-party dictatorship.

  8. Not voting can be making a choice just as valid as voting. GetoutthevoteTM is largely pushed by people who believe larger (and more uninformed) voting pools will benefit Democrats. If suddenly it became clear this would help conservatives instead they’d drop this like a stinky potato.

    Get out the vote? How about get out the informed vote?

  9. It seems to me that a lot of voters, when they vote, make their choice in stupid ways. Why would I want to urge those people to bother?

    There is also the problem that in many races, it is not possible to vote well, either because no acceptable candidate is running, or (in the case of candidates for judge or sheriff) because candidates won’t state their policies, and there is no easily available record of their decisions in office.

  10. Consider the case of a voter who votes at random, or on a near-random basis (“I’ll vote for everyone whose last names begins with ‘S-‘”). Is that person being dutiful? Does any benefit accrue from that vote? The only benefit I can think of is that by enlarging the active electorate, that vote conveys to the winner a certain measure of apparent legitimacy that might otherwise be lacking. A winner with 90% turnout might well seem more legitimate than one with 10% turnout, and that *might* be a good thing when revolution or contempt for government threatens. Dictators know that very well, which is why they tend to win with 90% turnout.

    1. PFS,
      No, dictators tend to win with 90% of the votes that are cast. I think most dictators would be perfectly happy with a 25% or 50% turnout…as long as the vote counters end up giving them their 90% or 95% or 99% “landslide” victory.

    2. Australia has a solution for the random voter. There are a multitude of ballots, and which party/candidate appears at the top is randomly assigned. So a voter block of people who just pick all first/last/middle candidate will tend to distribute evenly. Even the guy who votes for ‘S’ named candidates will be ballanced by a multitude of other pseudo-random voters.
      The non-random voters will still have the ability to direct the outcome of an election based on their votes.

      1. “Even the guy who votes for ‘S’ named candidates will be ballanced by a multitude of other pseudo-random voters.”

        This argument assumes that there is a balance of random voters. That might be true of coin-flip voters, but it certainly isn’t true of “the guy who votes for ‘S’ named candidates”.

  11. But there is broad agreement that we have a duty to vote, if at all possible

    And you know this because election turnouts are routinely north of 90%?

    This assertion is stupid on its face. Voting is a right, not a duty– not a moral one, not a civic one, and certainly not a legal one.

  12. The arguments above apply better to primary elections than to general elections.

    That is because in general elections you only have two choices, between the two parties. The finer issues of candidate quality and policy priorities have already been largely determined by the primary voters.

    Unrelatedly, the duty to vote is a duty to endorse democracy and the American way. A high participation rate demonstrates that our democracy is run by the people, at large.

  13. If you can not articulate a persuasive argument for the person you intend to vote for, you have a moral duty not to vote. Do not cancel out the vote of someone who knows what they are doing. You are the sole judge on the question weather this criteria applies to you and no government should second guess you if you fool yourself that you are qualified. Let’s sponsor a PSA to persuade unqualified persons from voting!

    1. “None of the above” should be given consideration. If all the candidate did a bad job of communicating his or her platform (such as not showing up in your location for a town hall meeting), then a protest vote would be most appropriate. A PSA might be a good option to destigmatize None.

  14. I demand free cookies and pizza at the polling stations!

    1. More people will come if they think we have punch and pie.

  15. Only net tax payers and the military (active and retired) should be allowed to vote.

    1. I’d limit to net taxpayers. Military people are just as likely to seek to enrich themselves at the expense of the general public as any other special interest group. In fact, one of the earliest special interest organizations using their influence to siphon federal money into its members’ pockets was the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans of the Civil War.

      But even as limited, there are practical problems with this requirement. Welfare recipients and civil servants are obviously disqualified, but what about employees of government contractors? It could be quite a chore figuring out what percentage of their paychecks should be attributed to tax money.

    2. There it is.

      The breed on the right that hates democracy. They want something more akin to an aristocracy.

      If you buy things in this country, you pay taxes.

      You don’t think the poor get to have a say in how our country is run? You don’t think they have a stake in things?

      I look forwards to the anti-Ninteenth crowd.

      1. American Democracy was founded upon the vote belonging only to land holders. Anyone else didn’t have enough stake in the community to warant a voice.
        It helps settle the problem voiced (to his detriment) by Mitt Romney, that once the majority of voters are non-contributors to the tax system, then taxation effectively becomes a non-represented taking by the government.

        1. America was founded in a way that failed to live up to it’s promise in many. many ways.

          I don’t think the issue with tax policy not being harsh enough on the poor is the poor people asking for it, compared to rich people not being horrible monsters.

          1. Yep, people should be “entitled” to vote so they can live at the expense of others. This cannot have a happy ending for anyone including the net tax consumers.

            1. 1) Making electoral policy based on your preferred policy is pretty fundamentally undemocratic.

              2) Your understanding of poor people as amoral leeches is pretty screwed up.

              3) Voting is a right, not an entitlement. You sound like a monarchist.

            2. You should consider that you don’t have the power to prevent other people from taking your things. Democracy is just a bargain in which people who have less than you agree not to take all your things. All these confiscatory taxes are part of a bargain made by the rich with the poor, in exchange not to be eaten.

        2. “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.”
          ― Alexis de Tocqueville

          Now as to Willard Mitt, I believe the wind is blowing from the West today.

          1. There are many, many currently healthy and active republics that are a counterexample to that notion.

        3. “…that once the majority of voters are non-contributors to the tax system…”

          You’re missing the point. The poor are contributors to the tax system. Sales taxes are paid by the poor. And it is not only “land holders” who pay property taxes. The poor pay those, too.

          1. The “poor” like almost all govt. employees are net tax consumers.

            1. Neither are the rich.

            2. Only if you are thinking of federal income taxes. The effective rate for the poor on sales and property tax is higher than for the rich.

  16. I think Brenen gets it wrong when he supposes writing an article and then having him respond to it in print is some kind of harm. That’s a publication plus a free cite!

  17. I’ve long had a practice of leaving any ballot line blank if the candidate is running unopposed.

    I’ve skipped a number of off-year primaries because there was nothing else on the ballot but unopposed candidates (usually incumbents).

  18. There is no moral duty or justification to force people to vote. With the choices we have, why participate in the destruction of America? If forced to vote, I would vote NO!

  19. Registering to vote offers the burden of 3 political robocalls per day, on average, for months including nights and weekends. I will deregister this month.

    1. What are you talking about?
      You don’t even need to enter your phone number to register to vote.

      1. If you aren’t registered, they don’t bother with you.

        1. I’m registered, and don’t receive political robocalls. Certainly not 3 a day.

  20. I’m not convinced of these arguments. One disagreement is fundamental, and unlikely to be resolved – what is the purpose of voting, to get “the best” or “the most legitimate” government. For me it is the latter – government with the consent of the governed means that I’ve nobody to blame but me if I suffer from what the people I elected do, it gives their action legitimacy. If the emphasis were on the first, we’d use expert panels. Large scale non-voting then becomes a problem as it deprives the government of legitimacy, without indicting what I’d want instead.

    That would deal with some of the objections, esp. the “vote well” – voting is (also/mainly) an expression of my preferences, not (necessarily) an external judgement of the correctness of policies.

    I don’t think the “farming” analogy that tries to counter the categorical imperative argument works. When deciding on a career, I can see what everyone else is doing – and we have methods to resolve co-ordination problems like this. That could be, depending on political preference, to make farming more attractive, or indeed to make it mandatory – for some (send in the army to bring in the harvest) or everyone sometimes etc – and yes in that scenario I’d say there could be a moral duty to farm. This does not apply in the voting scenario where I don’t see everyone’s behaviour before it is too late.

    The other civic duty arguments seem to rest on a semantic slight of hand. This seems particularly clear in the second, where “a duty to be productive” suddenly becomes ” a duty to be as productive as possible”. The first seems to me to confuse the difficulty/ or unachievability of “civic perfection” with a denial that there is such a duty in the first place. So I’d say one can happily bite that bullet and say yes, if being “civically virtuous” is a duty (rather than an aspiration) then all the actions that contribute to it are also duties. That we don’t consider intuitively people who don’t do all the things they could do for society blameworthy is merely a sign that we can only aspire to do all the things we have a duty to do, and cut ourselves some slack.

    1. “Large scale non-voting then becomes a problem as it deprives the government of legitimacy, without indicting what I’d want instead.”

      That would only make it morally required to vote if the current level of voters was insufficient to grant legitimacy to government. Which isn’t the case.

      “This does not apply in the voting scenario where I don’t see everyone’s behaviour before it is too late.”

      Of course you do. We know how many people vote in every election. There has never been a vote in American history whose legitimacy was threatened by the non-participation of you (or any other voter).

      Your distinction of farming is also unpersuasive. The methods to resolve farming coordination may not manifest until it’s “too late” either. If voting participation ever gets to whatever minimum threshold you have for legitimacy, we can incentive it (as necessary).

      “The other civic duty arguments seem to rest on a semantic slight of hand.”

      Since you think the moral duty to vote is premised on increasing the amount of votes overall, wouldn’t every person who has the ability to cause two people to vote in the same time it takes them to vote, have a moral duty to cause those two other people to vote (rather than actually voting)?

  21. There can be no moral duty to vote since the purported end of voting is impossible in any election in the 21st century anyway. See Arrow’s impossibility theorem.

    1. Correct, under Arrow’s assumption of simple majority voting. But one way to avoid indecision/cycles is to require unanimity in all political decisions, as proposed by Wicksell, Buchanan, and others. Since this will require extensive bargaining and compensation to achieve, it will satisfy the Pareto criterion and will lead to stability. It will also have the significant benefit of limiting collective decisions to the absolute minimum necessary — what keeps me from voting is that I consider current simple-majority politics too excessive and intrusive. Rather than voter suppression, I worry much more about majority imposition and domination of voter minorities. I have a moral obligation to express that voice by not voting.

      1. It’s not practical. It also creates a dictatorship.

  22. I do think there is one moral argument for mandatory voting. If good people deserve to have good things happen to them, bad people should have bad things happen to them. A polity made up primarily of morally bad people does not deserve a good government. Allowing the bad people to be governed well is unjust. Including their ethically corrupt votes will ensure that the people get the government they deserve, good and hard.

  23. Require every ballot to have a “None of the Above” box. If None of the Above wins, start over with different candidates.

  24. Cool story.

    Try this one on.

    “If voting were really as pointless as certain ‘smart’ people claim, they wouldn’t spend so much time trying to persuade you to not vote.”

    You think you’re clever. You aren’t. You’re just an overly-inflated asshole trying to trick people. It might work. But regardless if it does or not, you’ll be a horrible human being.

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