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Is there a Duty to Vote?*

  • Loren E. Lomasky (a1) and Geoffrey Brennan (a2)

The genre of public service advertisements that appear with two- and four-year cyclical regularity is familiar. Cameras pan across scenes of marines hoisting the flag on Iwo Jima, a bald eagle soaring in splendid flight, rows of grave markers at Arlington. The somber-voiced announcer remonstrates: “They did their part; now you do yours.” Once again it is the season to fulfill one's civic duty, to vote.

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1 We are in sympathy with this distinction, believing that the Kantian equation of moral worth with adherence to duty is seriously deficient. That theme will not, however, be pressed in what follows.

2 For example, one may establish valuable business contacts while on the links; one can appease querulous folk who do believe in the existence of a duty to vote by putting in an appearance at the polls.

3 See Brennan, Geoffrey and Lomasky, Loren E., Democracy and Decision: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), ch. 7.

4 Why this does not generalize to more usual democratic polities is discussed in Section V.

5 See Nozick's, Robert discussion in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 9095.

6 We argue below that political rhetoric routinely overstates the magnitude of the electoral stakes.

7 The assumption of an odd-number electorate simplifies the analysis by allowing us to ignore the possibility of ties and rules for handling them. It does not modify the conclusion regarding the relative inconsequentiality of an individual vote.

8 See Brennan, and Lomasky, , Democracy and Decision, esp. ch. 4, “The Analytics of Decisiveness,” 5473.

9 Parfit, Derek, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 7475 (emphasis in the original).

10 Barry, Brian, “Comment,” in Political Participation, ed. Benn, Stanley (Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1978), 39 (emphases in the original).

11 But all else is quite certainly not equal; see below.

12 We omit here complications arising from the voter's beliefs concerning the merits of the candidates, the intentions that inform the act of voting, and the motivation for exercising the franchise rather than abstaining. Different consequentialists attach different moral implications to these, and their resolution is, in any event, peripheral to an alleged duty to vote.

13 Compare Downs, Anthony in his classic An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York: Harper and Row, 1957), 269: “Since the consequences of universal failure to vote are both obvious and disastrous, and since the cost of voting is small, at least some men can rationally be motivated to vote even when their personal gains in the short run are outweighed by their personal costs.”

14 Here the benefit secured by others' compliance extends primarily to the orchard owner but can be understood derivatively as a public good, the obtaining of a higher level of obedience to law, enjoyed equally by those who contribute to the production of that good and those who do not.

15 For a model of voting behavior that takes electoral activity to be primarily motivated by expressive concerns, see Brennan, and Lomasky, , Democracy and Decision, especially ch. 3, “The Nature of Expressive Returns,” 3253.

16 During recent decades, turnout for American presidential elections has tended to be near the 50 percent mark of the eligible population, turnout for off-year elections well under 50 percent. For example, in 1996 and 1992 (presidential election years), voters constituted 49.1 percent and 55.1 percent respectively, while the figures for 1994 and 1990 were 38.8 percent and 36.5 percent respectively. Note that approximately one-quarter of the eligible population is not registered to vote. Statistics on voter turnout are available on the website (

17 Sometimes the case for a duty to vote is offered as a quasi-generalization argument based on the observation that, in real-world politics, abstention is not uniform across groups or classes. We might, for example, observe that the frequency of voting by poor black single mothers is less than that of well-to-do white male retirees. Then, on the assumption of reasonably systematic interest-based voting, the results that can be predicted to emerge if everyone votes can be compared with those that actually prevail: the difference becomes a measure of the democratic deficit which one might be thought to have a duty to overcome. But even if this constitutes a rationale for voting by the electorally underrepresented, it just as strongly argues for abstention by the overrepresented. (And since all of us are members of an indefinitely large number of classes—single mothers, left-handed philatelists, Albanian Buick-owning Rosicrucians—it will be hard to come up with an unambiguous criterion for determining whether one's proper home is among the under- or overrepresented.) Unsurprisingly, if a generalization argument is directed at specific groups, it cannot really function as a generalization argument.

18 Nor is it in any obvious way a corollary of Kantian ethics, but this is a matter that could bear further examination.

19 It is a piece of conspicuous consequentialist obtuseness to attempt to find the rationale for all such expressive activity in the effects that such messages of support will have on the stricken individual's medical prognosis or emotional state. Is it necessary to explain to anyone who is not deep in the caverns of utilitarianism that, for example, one does not automatically score high marks as a friend if, instead of displaying a long face before the bedridden individual, thereby adding misery to misery, one eschews the hospital visit in favor of an evening's carousing at the pub?

20 See Brennan, and Lomasky, , Democracy and Decision, 186–89.

21 See Brennan, Geoffrey and Pettit, Philip, “Unveiling the Vote,” British Journal of Political Science 20 (1990): 311–33.

22 In the mid–1970s, when soaring inflation was ravaging the economy, President Gerald Ford commandeered the nation's television screens to display to the American people WIN (“Whip Inflation Now”) buttons that they were bidden to wear as a signal of their determination to overcome the blight. At the time, some critics lampooned the buttons as an ineffective instrument for combating ratcheting price levels. That was unfair. What rendered the WIN button ludicrous was not lack of causal efficacy but rather its bathetic expressive quality. It was of a piece with Ford's errant golf shots and occasional airport tarmac pratfalls.

Much contemporary passion directed toward collecting newspapers and bottles in recycling bins has about as much effect on the level of depletion of natural resources as WIN buttons did on the level of inflation. However, recycling activity has an inner complexity adequate to render it expressively articulate with regard to the ends thereby endorsed. Recycling's wisdom may be disputed, but the practice is not inherently laughable.

23 Compare the transition from eighteenth-century ideals of a citizen's militia to the variety of contemporary enthusiasms for a right to keep and bear arms.

24 Nonvoting no more undermines the foundations of the right to vote than does remaining a bachelor undermine a right to marry.

25 Consider a parallel case: A law requiring two witnesses for a will to be valid is not shown to be undesirable by a proof that there is no antecedent moral duty in the state of nature to have one's testament doubly witnessed.

26 Some of these reasons might explain why some people choose to bear modest tariffs by dialing a special number that constitutes a vote in a telephone poll that elects nobody and brings about no outcome.

* Previous versions of this essay have been presented at the University of Minnesota, Australian National University, the Australasian Association of Philosophy annual meeting, and various public establishments catering to thirsts philosophical and otherwise. We are grateful to the vigorous interlocutors we encountered at these venues who challenged us to clarify and sharpen these arguments.

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Social Philosophy and Policy
  • ISSN: 0265-0525
  • EISSN: 1471-6437
  • URL: /core/journals/social-philosophy-and-policy
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