Why voting cannot be a duty

Dan Degerman
Dan Degerman

by Dan Degerman, Graduate Research Scholar, Department of Political Science and International Studies, Long Island University,USA

The electoral race has reached its climax. The party war machines are running at full capacity, saturating the airwaves with political vitriol. Yet, even in this state of war, the combatants unanimously agree on one thing. As democratic citizens, each and every one of us has a duty to vote.

Most of us concur, which is unsurprising given the incessant repetition of this mantra. While few would agree with the letter of phrases, such as “Vote or Die,” many seem to agree with their spirit. That is, people who fail to vote are worthy of derision. We saw this exemplified in the public outcry against Russell Brand’s notorious statement that people shouldn’t vote. Such calls may be misguided, but the idea that people are morally obligated to vote is equally misconceived.

At its core, the purpose of voting is to legitimize the government. As John Locke famously stated: “no one […] can be subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent.” By authorizing a government through the electoral process, we express our consent to its power. However, consent is only possible if dissent is an option. The idea of voting as a duty does away with the moral right to withhold consent. If it is morally right to vote, then not voting is wrong. This creates a situation where consent is the only option. It is like asking someone to marry you and not taking no for an answer.

While the capacity to withhold consent is theoretically essential, the issue might seem somewhat esoteric. After all, most of us think of voting as expressing consent to the rule of a particular political party rather than the government as an institution. Yet, it is on this practical level that we find the more concrete signs of the decay that this moral misconception has caused.

It is no coincidence that the dominant political parties have coalesced around the duty to vote. For them, it is a central tool in their campaign arsenal. Campaigners on the left and the right carefully target those who should know it is their duty to vote, and these just happen to be the people who are most likely to vote for them.

Part and parcel of this tactic is avoiding complex issues that might require explanation, and focusing on a handful of policies that almost anyone, regardless of political creed, can condone. For potential voters, the first order of consideration should be which political party has put its name on the ‘listicle’, while the particulars of policy and execution should remain secondary. The duty to vote does not involve an obligation to engage in the political debates, to learn about the causes of current social and economic issues, or to examine the values and beliefs that underpin the political parties. It begins and ends at the ballot box.

The myopic emphasis on the idea of voting has divorced the act of voting from the decision-making that ought to underpin the act. This is most clearly demonstrated by the rise of the election quiz. For the unenlightened, these quizzes do not test your knowledge of electoral politics. Quite the reverse. Instead, their purported capacity is to provide quiz takers with a “voting preference” based on their answers to a few questions.

The quiz decides for you. All you need to do is vote. Resisting the temptation for dystopic speculations, this is a grave issue in the here and now. In contradiction to what the new generation of political communicators would have us believe, the internet and social media has not raised our knowledge or understanding of political issues. Recent research has demonstrated an astounding disengagement from the questions that comprise the political debate. In this environment, the duty to vote betrays the reason we vote in the first place, which is to give our informed consent to be governed.

In order to make an informed political decision, we require knowledge. In political contexts, this has become a dirty word, scarred by elitist associations. Populists are quick to portray such suggestions as hostile to working-class people. Yet, it is incontrovertible that voters must possess some knowledge to have the capacity to vote. This is not the ability to take a political quiz and check a box on a voting card. It is the ability to parse political jargon, question oversimplified policy solutions and hold politicians accountable for how their decisions affect the country in the long terms. Capacity must precede duty.

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