The Responsibility to Vote?

Presidential elections bring more than political ads and disappointment; they also mark the season for a peculiarly American form of moralizing.  We are reminded that voting is a great honor & privilege that we have received at an equally great cost in lives.  Attached to these reminders is always the suggestion that voting is a moral imperative.  And not just any voting will do–any vote that isn’t effective (i.e. that doesn’t help decide between the two major candidates) is a vote that is deemed wasted.  Is voting in America in general and voting for a major candidate in particular really a moral imperative?

I did ultimately vote this year.  However, because I seriously considered not doing so, I obviously think there is a case to be made that voting is not a moral obligation in every circumstance.  Say, for example, that there were only one candidate on the ballot, and you had no input on selecting that candidate.  In such a case, voting would not be a particularly meaningful privilege.  Neither would voting be an opportunity to serve our neighbor.  We can conclude, then, that voting per se is not obligatory–it is not a moral absolute.  It is only imperative in circumstances in which it would be beneficial to our neighbors.  Unfortunately, I believe the American situation is too close to the example when it comes to national politics–not because our elections are rigged, but because our society is.

In this presidential election, the differences between the major candidates were, for the most part, rhetorical.  Despite constant disagreement in speeches and debates, the actual records of President Obama and Mr. Romney were not substantially different.  Furthermore, on the Republican side, at least, the candidate was selected by a combination of party officials and a media that hates Republicans.  In essence, conservatives allowed them to run an unaccountable meta-election during and before the primaries that determined which candidates were “electable” or “viable.”  The GOP candidate was selected solely on this basis–elected for being electable rather than for any particular qualification to govern.  Electability, however, was not determined by actually winning the election in question, but rather by pollsters and analysts beforehand.  The end result is that the course of this country’s leadership was determined well before Nov 6th–and not by the people.  We merely got to decide whether the President has an ‘R’ or a ‘D’ after his name.

In short, at the highest levels of government, we have less of a two party system and more of a single party system with two factions.  They decide where the country goes, not the voters.  The ability to frame both sides of an election is far more powerful than deciding who wins it.  The people may be able to decide on whether to use the right lane or the left lane, but the destination is no longer up for debate.  I therefore considered not voting because I do not think that destination is good for my neighbor and I did not want to legitimize the fiction of American self-governance by participating in it.

So why then did I vote?

  1. We let the media and party officials run that meta-election.  We allowed this situation to come to pass by the way we vote.  I don’t believe there is a solution to be found in voting, but one should not be part of the problem either.
  2. There are other options than the two major parties, and I exercised one of those.
  3. Local elections do still matter.  Though voting per se isn’t an imperative, it’s not the problem either.  Our national political culture diminishes the value of national voting, but elections are still an effective way of governing locally.

I found this to be the best way to use my vote to help my neighbor.  However, I do not in any way begrudge those who concluded that their countrymen would be best served by not voting at all.  “Thou shalt vote” is not a moral absolute, and so it falls to sound judgment to make the wisest decision it can.

Some would charge, however, that I did not fulfill my obligation to my neighbor.*  This charge is not at all uncommon, and according to such folk, any vote in the presidential race that was not for Barack Obama or Mitt Romney was a vote that was “wasted.”  After all, voting for someone without a chance of winning is nothing more than making a statement that few or none will hear.  Once again recalling that our vocations (including voter) are there for the service of our neighbor, let us consider this charge.

Say you have been given the privilege of voting on whether to A) Punch your neighbor in the face;  B) Kick your neighbor in the butt; and C) Pat your neighbor on the head.  Polls show that A will get 54% of the vote, B will get 45%, and C will 1%.  Voting for C or not voting at all seem like better ways of serving than participating in either A or B.  It boggles the mind that otherwise intelligent people consider C to be the “waste” all the while vehemently arguing whether a punch in the face is better than a kick in the butt.  C may not win, but at what point has “try to be on the winning side” replaced “love your neighbor?”  It is even worse to go further and self-righteously condemn those who elect not to try and spare their neighbor a kick in the butt by punching him in the face.  It would seem that even conservatives have now become closet utilitarians, for neither God nor natural law instruct us to wrong our neighbor in order to spare him a slightly worse wrong.

At the very least, “first do no harm” seems a more sensible guide to serving our neighbor than “vote for the winningest villain.”

This entry was posted in Ethics, Politics. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Are you human? Enter the 3 digits represented below. (They're like dice--just count the dots if it's not a numeral) *