It is said that voting is a duty, and that those who don’t do it make “excuses.” It is said that that those who don’t fail to honour those who died or are dying fighting for the right to do so. And further away from the sloganeering urgency of a mind-numbing campaign, other, more sophisticated arguments have been and will be made in order to impress on the electorate the idea that exercising the franchise is not a right, but an obligation.

These arguments are not persuasive. As I have argued in a series of posts over at my blog, Double Aspect, there is no duty to vote ― even a moral duty, never mind one that the state would have a right to enforce by the threat of legal sanctions.

It is not the case that we must vote in order that the election results take into account a maximum of information about the electorate’s preferences, be they selfish or altruistic views about who will best govern the country, because elections are spectacularly bad at aggregating information. Nor is the case that it is necessary for us to vote in order to uphold the continuing legitimacy of our democratic political arrangements, because well functioning democracies can exist with low turnout rates (Switzerland’s is routinely below 50%). Nor will universal turnout help improve the quality of election campaigns; on the contrary, it would only increase the number of low-information voters easily swayed by empty slogans and mendacious ads. Gratitude to those who won the right to vote cannot explain an obligation to exercise it any more than gratitude to those who won our other rights requires us to exercise each and every one of those. Ultimately, voting is a civic choice, not a civic duty, because there are many other ways to be a good, engaged citizen.

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This is not a call for abstention, of course. If you believe that there is a candidate or party who will move the country at least somewhat closer to your policy preferences, by all means, go and vote for him/her/it. If you believe that there is a candidate or party who will move the country noticeably further away from your preferences than the others, then you should probably consider voting strategically to prevent this from happening. But please, spare us the no-excuses rhetoric. Indeed, given the levels of political ignorance among our fellow citizens (quite rational political ignorance, too), which are highest among those least likely to vote, most of the abstainers are probably doing us all a favour by staying home.

And please, please, please, never say that those who don’t vote don’t have a right to complain. A person’s entitlement to exercise a right, such as freedom of expression, is not conditional on his or her prior exercise of another right, such as voting. People get this point, somehow, when it comes to voting itself. They don’t say that those who fail to exercise their right to become informed about public affairs therefore have no right to vote. Well, that reasoning goes both ways. If you are happy to encourage the uninformed to vote, you should be able to tolerate the abstainers complaining about the outcome of that voting.

Leonid Sirota
Leonid Sirota teaches constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Law, McGill University and the New York University School of Law. His main interests are Canadian constitutional law, other areas of public law and legal theory.

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