Democracy

Is there a Moral Duty to Vote in an Election Where the Stakes are Unusually High?

There could be in some situations. But less often than many assume. And, ironically, the same reasoning suggests many people would have a duty NOT to vote in such cases.

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Most arguments for a moral duty to vote cast it as a general obligation of citizenship. At least as a general rule, they hold that citizens are morally required to vote in elections—regardless of how big the difference between the opposing candidates is, and regardless of which candidate the voter in question prefers. I have criticized such claims in previous writings, most recently here.

But there is another, more limited justification for a duty to vote in at least some elections. It's the idea that we have an obligation vote in cases where the stakes are especially high. Maybe there's no duty to cast a ballot when there is little difference between the opposing candidates, or when the differences between them won't have much effect. But things are different if one side is vastly better than the other. That intuition underlies the oft-heard sentiment that you must vote because "this is the most important election of our lifetime" and other similar claims. And, as polarization has grown, we hear such claims more often.

There is a kernel of truth to the claim that you have a duty to vote if the stakes are high enough. But the resulting moral duty applies far less often than advocates of the argument tend to assume. And the same reasoning actually implies many people have a moral duty not to vote.

Let's start with the kernel of truth. Imagine there's an election for a powerful political office that pits Gandalf (the benevolent wizard in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings) against Sauron, the despotic dark lord from the same story. If Sauron prevails, millions of people will die or be enslaved, while Gandalf would rule justly if he manages to win. And all you have to do to ensure Gandalf's victory is check his name on a ballot. If you do so, Gandalf wins; if not, Sauron does.

In this scenario, it seems like you have a moral duty to vote for Gandalf, at least barring some kind of extraordinary exigent circumstance. In real election, of course, the odds that your vote will make a difference are far smaller than in this stylized example. In an American presidential election, they are, on average, about 1 in 60 million, though higher in swing states.

However, a large enough difference between the two candidates could potentially justify a duty to vote for the "right" candidate, even if the odds of casting a decisive ballot are very low. For example,let's say you live in a swing state, and you have a 1 in 1 million chance of casting a decisive vote for Gandalf over Sauron. But if your vote does turn out to be decisive, you will save 1 million people from death, and 10 million from being enslaved. Some simple math leads to the conclusion that the expected value of your vote (the benefit of Gandalf's victory divided by the likelihood of having an impact) is one live saved, and ten people saved from slavery.

Here too, it may be you have a duty to vote. At the very least, there can be at least some scenarios where you have a duty to vote even if the likelihood of having a decisive impact is fairly low.

But notice that the duty in question is not an obligation to participate in the process for its own sake. It's a duty to help good triumph over evil in a situation where you can do so at little or no cost. If you have a moral duty to vote for Gandalf in these types scenario, it follows that you also have a moral duty not to vote for Sauron. Indeed, the person who votes for Sauron is more worthy of condemnation than the one who merely abstains. The former is actively helping evil win, while the latter "merely" chooses not to stop it.

While Gandalf supporters may have a duty to vote, Sauron supporters actually have a duty to abstain from doing so. Ideally, they should stop supporting Sauron entirely. But they at least should not take any actions that increase the likelihood of his victory.

All of the above analysis assumes that the voter knows which candidate is superior and to what degree. But, in reality, we have widespread political ignorance, and most voters often don't even know very basic facts about how government and politics work. Most are also highly biased in their evaluation of the information they do know, functioning more as "political fans" cheering on Team Red or Team Blue, than as truth-seekers.

There is much that people can do to become better voters. But most will not actually do so, because such action requires a lot of time and energy, and may be psychologically painful. Unless and until a voter becomes well-informed about the issues and at least reasonably objective in his or her evaluation of political information, she has good reason to question her judgment about which candidate is superior, much less by how much. Thus, she cannot conclude she has a duty to vote to help the "right" side win. She may instead have a presumptive duty to abstain from voting until she meets at least some minimal threshold of political knowledge.

Perhaps the relatively ignorant and biased voter might conclude he still should vote, because he is at least less ignorant and biased than average. Thus, casting a vote would slightly improve the average quality of the electorate and perhaps slightly increase the odds of the right candidate winning. That could be true. But notice that figuring out whether you are better informed than the average voter itself requires time and effort and a certain level of preexisting knowledge. It also requires resisting the psychological temptation to think you must be better than average. Any duty to vote in such circumstances is likely to be greatly attenuated, at best.

Many people will resist this conclusion on the grounds that figuring out which side is the "right" one is actually easy, because the gap between the opposing sides is so great. All you have to do is open your eyes!

I myself think that there is a substantial gap between Biden and Trump, and that the former is the lesser evil here. It may not be quite as clearcut as Gandalf vs. Sauron; but it is perhaps roughly analogous to Sauron vs. Cersei Lannister—not good vs. evil, but a  great evil vs. a much smaller one.

But if the difference between the two sides were really so obvious that almost anyone can easily figure it out, then there would be no need to worry about the election outcome! Those not otherwise inclined to vote can simply leave the decision to that portion of the population that actually enjoys voting, secure in the knowledge that the latter will easily figure out that Gandalf (or even Cersei) is preferable to Sauron.

If, on the other hand, it looks like Sauron has the support of 40% or more of the population, and therefore has something like a 10% chance of winning, that suggests discerning his relative evil is a tougher task than you might at first assume. And if the task is that difficult, your own judgment about Sauron could also be defective, unless you are relatively well-informed and unbiased.

Even if you do have good reason to be confident about your judgment about the candidates, and you justifiably believe that one is vastly superior to the other, you still might not have a duty to vote if doing so is unusually costly (for example, casting a ballot would divert you from some very important task). You might also be "excused" if you have already contributed to the public interest in some other way, as per philosopher Jason Brennan's argument in his excellent book The Ethics of Voting. But at least there might be a presumptive obligation to vote here.

Perhaps you also have a duty to become a well-informed and unbiased voter in the first place. But that requires a lot of time and effort, and may be especially difficult in a world where government policy extends to so many issues, thereby requiring extensive knowledge to understand more than a small fraction of them. It's hard to justify the idea that we have a duty to devote that much time to politics. It's certainly a far cry from the initial intuitive scenario where you have a duty to help Gandalf defeat Sauron, because all you need do is check the right box on a ballot.

To sum up, there can potentially be a duty to vote in a situation where 1) there is a big difference between the two sides, 2) your vote has a significant chance of being decisive, and 3) you have good reason to think you are right about which candidate is best (or at least to conclude that your reasoning is better than than that of the average voter). In that world, you also have a duty to avoid voting for the "bad" candidate. If you have an inclination to do the latter, it is better for you to abstain than to vote.

But these circumstances apply to a relatively small subset of voting decisions. In most elections, the differences between candidates are not as great, there is more uncertainty about which one is better, and a high percentage of the potential electorate have good reason to doubt the quality of their judgment.

The absence of a moral duty to vote in a given election doesn't necessarily mean you should abstain. Unless you have a moral duty not to vote (as in the Sauron supporter case discussed above), then you can vote or note vote without fear of condemnation. In my view, you do have at least a presumptive obligation to become relatively informed if you do choose to vote. But that's different from having an obligation to vote, as such.

Neither the duty to vote (where it exists) nor the duty to abstain (where that exists) are ones that should be enforced by the government. I oppose mandatory voting, and I am also skeptical that the government can be trusted to discern who is likely to be a good voter and who isn't, beyond perhaps some very minimal standards. These are moral obligations that individual voters should fulfill of their own accord, though we know many may fail to do so.

If this state of affairs seems unsatisfying, then I would suggest it strengthens the case for systemic reform to reduce our reliance on the knowledge and insight of voters, who often have strong incentives to be ignorant and biased in their judgments. I discuss potential options in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance, and here. In my most recent work, how we can empower people to have greater control over the policies they live under by expanding opportunities for them to "vote with their feet."

In the meantime, we should take seriously the possibility that there is sometimes a duty to vote to defeat a (great enough) evil. But we should also recognize the limits of such claims.

UPDATE: In this 2014 post, I criticized the related oft-heard claim that "if you don't vote, you have no right to complain."

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  1. TL:DR

    There is never a moral duty to vote.

    It is a privilege [or right if you prefer] that free people can exercise or not as they will.

    1. When you live in a one-party state there is not necessity to vote

  2. tl;dr

    Seems every election is the most important election of our lives.

    1. The next election will always be the most important election of your life, because you can’t change the past.

      1. Winston Smith and Google would beg to differ.

  3. Gandalf is supposed to be something like an angel and so he is supposed to help man get the courage to defeat evil and not actually just use his power to defeat evil. So Gandalf would never run for office he would find a good and capable man and help that man run for office only using his power if it 100% necessary. Disclaimer, I have never read the books and have only watched the movies around a thousand times.

    1. Correct observation about Gandalf.

      Using Tolkien in a voting argument is quite dumb. The only people in LotR who voted were the Hobbits for Mayor, a largely ceremonial post. It was all kings and lords otherwise, all hereditary.

      Evil was opposed by magic or the sword, not by going to a school and voting for one old man versus another.

      1. Sauron decides to preach the rich should pay their fair share, which will help keep opponents like kings down, and wins to accolades.

        Win-win from evil’s point of view.

    2. Close, an advisor, not an angel; the key point is that he would not take the mantle of rule any more than he would take the one ring.

  4. As I said in a comment to the other post, the moral duty to do something goes along with the desire to have that thing. If you want a government that’s elected by the people, you have a moral duty to vote. If you want a government that provides benefits, you have a moral duty to pay taxes. If you want a government that protects you from physical harm from other countries, you have a moral duty to serve in the armed forces (that applies more to countries like Israel than the U.S., since no one has attacked us in war since WWII).

    People who believe otherwise are literally taking a page out of the Despair.com calendar – “Irresponsibility: No single raindrop believes it’s responsible for the flood.” I suppose it makes sense that a libertarian can’t grasp the concept that even an ant colony knows – in order to do a big thing, you need a lot of little things each doing a little bit of the work. And as the Jewish “Pirkei Avot” text says, “You are not expected to complete the work, but neither are you free to abstain from it.”

    1. 9/11 was an attack.

  5. Sauron was a chump. His boss Morgoth now that guy you had to worry about.

    1. Sauron was a high roller. Put all his eggs in one ring (to mix a metaphor). When that fell into the lava, end of Sauron.

      After that he became a stock broker. Who always told his clients, “Diversify, or you’ll end up a loser. I know. Personally.”

      1. Really ? I heard he’d become a trial lawyer.

  6. I’d say that if you think Trump’s spending is more dangerous than Biden and the Dems, I’d prefer you sat it out.

    1. Democrats at least pretend to pay for new programs whereas Rove’s great idea was just to pass welfare expansions and tax cuts and start wars and just to not even pretend to pay for all of them. Trump has continued to do what Rove and W Bush pioneered. So the dumbest thing ever is Democrats opposing Rubio’s parental leave bill because it could cut SS payments 35 years in the future…just pass the bill and repeal the phony funding mechanism in a few years like Republicans did with all of the Obamacare phony funding mechanisms.

      1. Well as long as they pretend, I guess its okay!

        Thats how I like my politicians, liars who pretend!

      2. You assume far too long a view from politicians.
        Cutting SS has been a Dem scare tactic during my entire lifetime. It BS, just like the R’s claim to be fiscally responsible

        1. Rubio wants to give parents the option to take SS when they have a baby which would end up reducing SS payments at retirement. I just want a parental leave program ASAP and we can worry about how we pay for it later.

      3. You are an idiot if you think it matters how they pay for their spending. Taxes, inflation, debt, no difference: spending itself is the evil, and it will be paid for one way or the other.

  7. I don’t have the energy to look up Harris’ “I’m a fucking commie” tweet from this morning.

    1. It’s amusing how Harrison Bergeron was meant to be satire and we have a VP candidate running towards it hands outstretched.

  8. Yet you have no comment about Queen Whitmer’s latest edict that restaurants and bars MUST collect names and phone numbers from patrons.

    This after the Michigan Supreme Court said she could not make edicts like that without consent of the legislature.

    You are willing to turn a blind eye to tyranny, but accuse Trump of being “un-presidential”.

    But “Orange Man Bad” means we’re all good.

    1. My name Jose Jimenez; my number 1-800-555-1212

      1. Hey, nice to meet you. I’m Charles U. Farley, (911) 867-5309.

        1. I called up and a Jenny answered…

  9. It’s hard to see any duty in a state where your preferred party is a tiny majority. There’s no way your vote could change the outcome.

    In the parliamentary system, where parties gain seats in a legislature one at a time, there’s a bigger incentive and a bigger duty.

    American Democracy has come to mean a two party system and winner take all elections. I sympathize with people who are weary of American Democracy, and who would like to change it. We have a remedy. It is spelled out in The Preamble to The Declaration.

    1. Unfortunately the path to changing it passes squarely through diminishing the power of the presidency. The party in power has no incentive ever to do that.

    2. The Declaration doesn’t have a preamble.

  10. I prefer George Carlin’s perspective on voting. It’s the voter’s fault for the situation in DC. They keep voting these people into office. The non voters have no part in it.

    1. In DC getting busted with hooker and cocaine is a qualification for office.

  11. Re: Biden v Trump.

    If you view nothing else, Biden’s tepid support of court packing makes him the greater evil by far. Nothing Trump has done presents nearly so great a threat to the integrity of the Republic compared to the threat court packing presents, and the undermining of the Judiciary branch as a third, independent branch of government.

    1. Killing babies, general. Don’t forget killing babies.
      Raising taxes, general. Don’t forget raising taxes.
      Boys in the girl’s bathroom, general. Don’t forget boys in the girl’s bathroom.
      Selling out to terrorists, general. Don’t forget selling out to terrorists.
      etc, through the entire democrat party platform.

  12. You could have stopped after the seventh word in the title.

    And the answer would still be “yes”.

    All y’all who are trying to persuade people to not vote are contemptible.

    1. Around 30 years ago, Jeff Greenfield, I think it was, gave a littlr opinion piece at the end of ABC news on the eve of an election. He talked how then (as now) there was a lot of hot air about everyone going out to vote. His response: Don’t do it. If you don’t care enough about the issues, don’t pollute the election with your vote. Let those who care about the issues decide.

      Seems reasonable to me. The get out the vote efforts strive to get people who don’t care much about the issues to vote. What is noble about this at all?

      Unless you are hungry for power, of course.

      1. He was wrong, and so are you.

        Contemptible all.

  13. I knew before I even scrolled down that he wouldn’t be able to resist inserting a Trump diatribe or perhaps even use the whole post as a thinly disguised excuse for TDS. Show me on the doll where the orange man touched you Somin.

  14. But who is Gandalf, and who is Sauron?

    1. Just in case people aren’t catching on the way he likes he literally spells out that he considers Trump to be the equivalent of Sauron in case you were wondering how unhinged hes become over the election.

      1. Just for fun. Re: Sauron.

        “He took on a beautiful appearance at the end of the First Age to charm Eönwë, near the beginning of the Second Age when appearing as Annatar to the Elves, and again near the end of the Second Age to corrupt the men of Númenor. He appeared then “as a man, or one in man’s shape, but greater than any even of the race of Númenor in stature … And it seemed to men that Sauron was great, though they feared the light of his eyes. To many he appeared fair, to others terrible; but to some evil.”

        1. But to many he appeared Orange.

  15. Biden is Golum and Trump is the great spider.

  16. Professor Somin, could you ask Professor Volokh about how to place the bulk of your post behind a “Read more” link?

    1. “The Rule Against Perpetuities Has Several Intriguing exceptions – number three will surprise you!” – Read More

  17. Democrats are going to steal the election fraudulently in Pennsylvania.

  18. Americans enjoy the Bill of Rights – too bad the idea of a Bill of Responsibilities never took off.

    First among them would be voting

    1. It wouldn’t force people to investigate issues more, or care about them more. Are you not concerned it turns this precious right into an idiots’ referendum on sound bites? It’s mostly that anyway without imploring every last unconcerned citizen give their input.

      1. Are you not concerned it turns this precious right into an idiots’ referendum on sound bites?

        I’m not trying to discourage you from voting, am I?

        So no. Even idiots have rights and responsibilities. Go vote, you contemptible contemptuous wreck of a man.

  19. Morgoth/Ungoliant 2020 – why settle for the *lesser* evil?

  20. That’s Reason for you; home of the pro-war libertarians. :/

  21. Not many people know this, but on average approximately three US citizens a year are killed in giant meterorite strikes.

    As with your vote making a difference, it’s low probability day by day, but every 100 million years or so there’s a big spike.

  22. “And if the task is that difficult, your own judgment about Sauron could also be defective, unless you are relatively well-informed and unbiased.”

    Well, you’re relatively well-informed, anyway. I’m not entirely sure that all of your information is true, mind you, and it apparently has curious gaps, but there’s a fair amount of it.

    But I think your conclusion was a bit over-determined by one issue.

    1. Does it rhyme with irrigation?

  23. We have a civic duty to be an informed citizen and a civic duty to vote. Isn’t that what our Founders intended?

    Get out there and vote. If you’re posting at VC, you’re plenty informed. 🙂

  24. I vote for Libertarians because when the Democrats or Republicans fuck things up, I can say, “I voted against that bastard”.

    1. The libertarian is guaranteed schadenfreude every election.

    2. Unfortunately, the LP has gone downhill enough that I’m not even sure they’d be the lesser evil in practice. “The Party of Principle” isn’t so principled these days.

  25. This is not the most important election ever. In fact dispite all of the noise not much of signifance has happened in the last 4 years.

    1. I keep asking people what Trump has actually done (aside from rude tweets) that is so beyond the pale when compared to all the other crappy politicians we’ve had and have never gotten a coherent response.

      The only thing I can think of that is truly huge and unprecedented in our time is Covid. And I suspect with any average president the toll would be around the same. With maybe our economy somewhat more in tatters but people feeling somewhat better thanks to more positive media coverage if a Democrat was in office.

      As for everything else, uh I guess he’s kinda a hard-nose on immigration…compared to ummm…the last few admins? Other than that in terms of policy he’s mostly a moderate republican who is more conservative on a few issues.

      I think weakminded people get caught up in the 24/7 omnipresent tweeting wars and the nonstop social media soap opera and flood of tabloid rumors caused mostly by the establishments coordinated attempt to unseat him (to be fair he hasn’t helped deescalate) and this warps their perception of a mostly Middle of the road Admin.

      1. “As for everything else, uh I guess he’s kinda a hard-nose on immigration…compared to ummm…the last few admins?”

        And there you have it: Ilya is a fanatic on the topic of open borders. Trump could be Milton Friedman reincarnate, and as long as he wanted immigration laws enforced, Ilya would regard him as a monster.

      2. Yes. The fact that things are exploding in Europe shows that the people have a limit to how long they’re willing to tolerate social distancing. Even if you accept that Trump’s poor leadership didn’t help matters, at most, he accelerated the surges by a few months.

    2. I’ve made this point, too. From a promises point of view, he’s a disaster.

      From a net effect, not so much. He’s been fought to a standstill through normal political resistance. In the depressing view the best government governs least, not much has changed, covid aside. And I don’t buy into the view things would be radically different had a Democrat been the president, so even that hyperbole is a nonstarter.

  26. Reifying collective action problems is patently fallacious, and without that error you have no remaining argument at all.

  27. The problem is that, in the real world, the answer is not so simple. Not the answer as to whether one has a moral obligation to do good rather than evil. What is not so clear is which candidate is more evil.
    This is not just a matter of low information.
    There are plenty of extremely well informed people who will vote for one candidate, completely confident that the other is too horrible to contemplate them holding the office. But those people prefer different candidates.
    Those who desperately want to oppose abortion rights, to take one example, can be well informed about abortion and other issues that have nothing to do with abortion and prefer the relatively more anti abortion candidate. They may do this while fully aware of the candidate’s other shortcomings.
    People who care deeply about lowering taxes or encouraging religion in US governmental affairs need not be uninformed about the other issues. They may well agree with those on the left about the facts. They just disagree about the importance to attach to them.
    Those who want to tackle climate change, extend the social safety net and raise taxes on the wealthy can also understand that the costs of these initiatives will cut economic growth.
    It is not that they do not know this. It is not even that they do not care.
    It is just that they care about other things more.
    All the information in the world will not make people agree about the best package of solutions if, given the same set of facts, they do not agree as to which are the most pressing problems.

    1. There are plenty of extremely well informed people who will vote for one candidate, completely confident that the other is too horrible to contemplate them holding the office. But those people prefer different candidates.

      Sure. And both those people have a moral duty to go vote.

      This isn’t complicated. A moral duty to vote does not depend on being “right”. It’s a basic civic duty when you live in some shade or Republic or Democracy. Our government is granted legitimacy by the people, and our representatives are chosen by the people. If you do not take part, then you are undermining the legitimacy of your own government.

      So unless you are an anarchist (which, while arguably moral in previous eras, is not a moral political position in the modern world) then you have a moral and civic duty to go vote as best you can… even if you might be voting for the ‘wrong’ guy.

      People like Somin think that the world would be better if only people with the “right” views voted. They think that the problem with democracy is letting all the “wrong” people vote (i.e., all the people that don’t agree with them). They don’t really want a democracy at all, they want an autocracy (where they assume they’ll be at the top) because they’re control freaks who think they know what’s best for you.

      It’s morally and ethically repugnant, and you should reject it for the paternalistic nonsense it is. So go vote, regardless of whether other people think you’re voting “right” or “wrong”. Go vote for a fucking ham sandwich.

      We have a republic, if we can keep it. One of the ways we keep it? By voting.

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