Voting? Your Right, Your Responsibility—Or Not

Why is it just common sense to vote—even if it really “doesn’t matter"?

Posted Nov 01, 2016

Univ. at Buffalo Voting Booth/ Wikipedia Commons
Source: Univ. at Buffalo Voting Booth/ Wikipedia Commons

 Frankly, many people question whether it’s worth all the time and effort to vote in a presidential election—particularly when they have little enthusiasm or admiration for either candidate who’s running. (And here I’m excluding any consideration of down-ballot measures or candidates.)

After all, the chance of their single vote actually determining the outcome of the election is minuscule. So, if it’s so remote that their vote could “swing” the election, why even bother?

But think about it. If you believe in democracy—one person, one vote, so that our Nation can, theoretically at least, represent all of us—then giving up your vote proclaims your giving up on democracy, the “law of the land,” so to speak. And in this sense, whether statistically your individual vote is likely to make any difference in who is elected, or what propositions pass or fail, is completely irrelevant.

As the above title indicates, if as a U. S. citizen you have the right to vote, then it’s your responsibility to vote. Otherwise, you’ve removed yourself from the political process, intentionally made yourself a persona non grata—someone who doesn’t count because (willfully) you’ve chosen not to count. Inevitably, by not voting you’re making a political statement. And would you really want to be telling yourself that your “voice” in the matter doesn’t mean anything . . . to you?

After all, reflect on what such a self-directed message implies—in effect, that it makes no difference to you who is elected or what measures pass or fail. Your inaction amounts to a repudiation, not only of asserting your rights as a U. S. citizen, but of communicating your viewpoints and values as well. In short, your not voting becomes a vote against democracy. And although you might claim that not voting “registers” your protest against everything and everyone on the ballot, can such reasoning be anything more than a weak rationalization to justify the forfeiture of your rights?

Another way of looking at this issue derives from the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant and his famous Categorical Imperative. In its first, and best known, formulation it goes something like this:

Act only in accordance with the maxim that what you will for yourself you can also will for everyone else, universally.

Doubtless, bearing a distinct resemblance to the “rule of rules”—that is, the Golden Rule—in essence Kant’s Imperative is saying that your chosen actions should be at one with what you’d choose for humankind in general.

So, ask yourself: is this fundamental principle of right behavior one you could “vote” for, abide by, or align yourself with? For how would you feel if no one voted in this (or any other) election? If all of us decided it was too much of a bother? or the system was rigged anyway? And what kind of country might we become if everyone decided to stay home—whether in protest or simple unconcern? It should be obvious that such mass behavioral paralysis is precisely what leads a democracy to degrade into a dictatorship. And it's certainly not a very positive omen that in this crucial presidential election almost 100 million eligible voters didn't bother to vote.

Several writers have taken a similar Kantian stance on this issue. To provide but one example, here’s Steven Mazie writing for The Economist :

Can I universalise the non-voting maxim? Can I imagine living in a world in which every eligible voter opts for a nap or a game of Temple Run in lieu of going to the polls? No. The logic of American democracy does not support such a universalised principle. No one votes, no one is elected, a moment of constitutional failure brings an emergency convention in which unelected delegates draft a new constitution calling for an alternate system of specifying leaders that doesn’t involve the public. The franchise, and America as we know it, disappears. Since the logic of the system cannot be sustained were everyone to adopt the nap-over-voting maxim, I am morally bound not to act on it.

. . . If we view voting as an activity that expresses our democratic citizenship, our concern for our fellow citizens, our hope for the future or, to return to the Kantian principle, our affirmation of the constitutional system itself, we have good reason to vote (from “Is It Irrational to Vote?” Oct. 23, 2012).

For me personally, Kant’s moral imperative not only “feels” right, but seems an absolute prerequisite for living a life of authenticity and integrity. Anything else would feel hypocritical, or at least betray my deeply felt ethical obligation to operate in harmony with my values. Or, simply, to be true to myself. To deviate from this standard would be—to adopt the language of famous French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre—to live in “bad faith.”

Hannah Edgman/Free Images on Pixabay
Source: Hannah Edgman/Free Images on Pixabay

So, if you haven’t yet voted, will you—regardless of whether you think it will make a difference . . . or you want to, or feel like it?

NOTE 1: If you could relate to this post and think others you know might also, please consider forwarding them its link.

NOTE 2: To check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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