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The Moral Imperative to Vote

Updated: Oct 27, 2020

Max Stearns

This post advances a singular point: Many theorists steeped in economic or libertarian analysis maintain that the near impossibility that a singular vote will change the outcome of an election provides a defense against a personal obligation to vote. Instead, I argue, that very insight provides the basis for insisting that voting is a moral imperative. I will not make the independent case in this post against the sitting President. Those familiar with this blog know my views. I will at one juncture, as lawyers do, state a set of assumptions that help frame my arguments that declining to vote, or voting third party, is a moral abdication, especially in the combined set of tragic circumstances we confront as a nation.

Most well informed voters understand that the likelihood that their vote will change an outcome is practically nil. This is partly because within our system of winner-take-all elections, unlike list-party voting within parliamentary systems, it is extraordinarily rare for elections to be so close that a single vote, or even a small handful, determines the outcome. Nationally, this phenomenon operates on a far grander scale, and the problem is exacerbated by the electoral college, which creates a vote counting system that ensures that voting outcomes in some states matter more than in others even to the point that a minority of voters nationwide can prevail, as occurred in 2016.

Public choice scholars, who apply economic theory to political science, have spilled ample ink on this conundrum. Some have worked to devise a variety of escape hatches, none entirely pleasing. Most claim voting is irrational considering the near impossibility that any individual vote matters in the sense of controlling an outcome, especially when we consider the genuine costs of educating ourselves about issues and candidates, and, of course, the effort involved in getting to the polls to cast a ballot, or today, registering to vote by mail, assuming doing so is allowed. Several formal models embed assumptions designed to blunt this harsh realization, but ultimately each devolves to a singular claim: voting is only rational if those engaging in it, as a consequence of education, inculcated values, civic commitment, or even guilt, exhibit a “taste” for voting. (For a review of the literature, see pages 26-31).

Over the past several years, I have encountered a considerable number of highly educated libertarians, conservatives, and even progressives, who infer from the preceding insight that they lack a moral obligation to vote, and that if they choose to vote, they are entirely justified in selecting whomever makes them feel good upon exiting the polls. This includes voting for spoiler candidates, such as for the Libertarian Party or Green Party in 2016, and perhaps repeating that exercise in 2020, displaying no coincidental benefit, or wisdom, of hindsight. Several such voters claimed to find Donald Trump profoundly troublesome, despite which, they simply could not bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton. And some, despite claiming to be “never-Trump,” even today are laying the foundation for their personal case against casting a ballot for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Rather than meeting with success, my efforts to persuade such voters of the moral obligation to vote for the only candidates capable of averting the threat that Donald Trump represented, and today represents, the resulting exchanges have instead produced sometimes tense social media interactions, even pushing nominal “friendships” to or past the breaking point. Even so, the stakes are simply too high not to press on. We confront a series of crises that are not hyperbolic to describe as existential. As noted at the outset, I have made that case in several earlier posts. Here I am focusing on one of the most commonly expressed rationales embraced by highly educated citizens for declining to vote, or for voting third party, namely that because individual votes don’t matter, such persons bear no personal moral obligation to do otherwise. Let me be clear: This is a profoundly flawed exercise in moral reasoning.

If voting were rational in the narrow economic sense of providing a marginal benefit exceeding the marginal cost, there would be no need to claim a moral obligation to vote. Turnout would be predictably high. In theory, this is easily achieved. In Australia, as one example, the legal obligation to vote, coupled with sanctions for failing to do so, produces near unanimous turnout. Individual voters might be foolhardy in the choices they make, but wise voting is never guaranteed, and just as surely, as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein amply demonstrated in boasting virtual unanimous electoral support, guaranteed voting is likewise rarely wise. Within the United States, this is all almost certainly beside the point. The First Amendment makes compulsory voting at least an arguable non-starter, and even if it did not, there is no great movement to render voting compulsory. This puts us back to square one, pressing on the moral obligation.

Here I will make use of the hypothetical. (I am compelled to note that those who find this attenuated, or otherwise problematic, are not this post's intended audience, although they are for other posts.) Assume a President who, with his party’s acquiescence or even enthusiastic support, has so eroded our institutions that none operate as a meaningful check on his most egregious abuses or behaviors. Further assume that, as a direct consequence, the only remaining check against him is the election. Finally, assume, for the reasons set out above, the election suffers from, among other defects, challenges associated with the claimed irrationality of voting as an excuse not to vote even among those who otherwise claim to embrace the preceding assumptions regarding this hypothetical troublesome administration. The combined consequence risks low turnout, or low enough turnout to produce reelection. The counter to this bleak result invokes the moral imperative to vote.

The moral imperative arises for two reasons: (1) if a better outcome follows from the election, no individual voter can claim credit for having produced it through her or his vote, and (2) if, once more, a better outcome follows from the election, that outcome could not have resulted absent a vast number of independent—and thankless—actions, involving tens of millions of voters casting the necessary ballots to bring down the hypothetical threatening administration. The very thanklessness of a vital task requiring massive coordinated group effort to accomplish transforms voting into a moral obligation.

We generally don’t claim moral courage for acting in our self-interest or when anticipating accolades. We exhibit moral courage when we do what we do for no reason other than its rightness, even if not a soul in the world knows or will ever find out. To be sure, we can engage in moral conduct, albeit of the less courageous sort, that others observe and for which they offer thanks and praise. A charitable contribution needn’t be anonymous; in fact, having it named might motivate other personal acts of generosity. Moral acts needn’t be secretive. Some are deliberately modeled behaviors, as when parents model kindness at least in part on their children's behalf. Likewise, a daring rescue is no less so because others cheer on the brave soul putting herself at risk. But the very fact that a critically significant outcome—an election—entirely depends upon coordinated behaviors of vast numbers of persons, and with no credible possibility of taking credit for a benign result, thereby contributing to problematic under-investment in the activity, provides the very foundation transforming voting into an overriding moral duty, and the failure to vote into a moral abdication.

Voting is morally compelled because the very demand for vast coordinated thankless group action leads too many people—among them highly educated academics—to avoid it. The consequence is to leave vulnerable persons, suffering at the hands of self-serving leaders, exposed to highly problematic policies, including policies adversely affecting marginalized communities. Voting is a moral act that reveals—when no one is looking and no one will thank you—that as a citizen you are meaningfully connected with myriad overlapping communities, you care, and you understand that the election remains the sole institution capable of holding accountable those threatening our most fundamental democrat norms and institutions.

Voting is morally compelled precisely because responsible voting citizens fully understand that their individual votes won’t control the outcome, yet they just as surely know that effecting a benign electoral outcome demands that a vast moral citizenry disregard that superficial lesson in favor of one transforming voting into a profound moral obligation. That moral obligation compels voting, and specifically voting for the only candidate capable of bringing about an end to the threatening administration. The moral obligation cannot be satisfied merely by doing what feels good. It can only be met by being sufficiently other regarding, precisely when no one else is looking and no one else will thank you, to do what is necessary and right.

I welcome your comments.

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