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The genre of publi c service advertisements that appea r wit h two - an d

four-year cyclical regularity

is familiar. Cameras pa n across scenes of

marine s hoisting the flag on Iwo Jima, a bal d eagle soaring in splendi d flight, rows of grave markers at Arlington. The somber-voiced announce r remonstrates: "They di d their part ; no w you d o yours. " Once again it is the season to fulfill one' s civic duty, to vote .

Good citizenship in the final decade of the twentiet h century does not seem to require muc h of th e individua l beyon d simple law-abidingness. We hav e traveled a far distance from the Athenian agora. However, there exists a remarkable degree of consensus tha t voting is requisite, tha t one

wh o fails to exercise th e franchise is thereby derelict.

Candidate s for the

nation' s highest office publicly proclaim tha t duty ; so d o one's neighbors

an d associates—perhaps wit h some asperity in their voices—when in- formed tha t you chose to absent yourself from the polls tha t they took the trouble to visit. We call tha t consensus remarkable because, as will be - come evident, it is exceedingly difficult to develop a persuasiv e rationale

for the existence of a dut y

to vote . Often tha t dut y is simply taken for

granted . Where argument s are given, they typically invoke either falla- cious reasoning or dubiou s empirical premises. A cautious surmis e is tha t the assurance wit h which the dut y to vote is affirmed is not matched b y equivalent cogency of justification. But w e wish to advance a bolder conclusion: There is n o satisfactory rationale for a dut y to vote. Contra the popula r wisdom , an individua l wh o chooses not to exercise the franchise does not thereby fall short wit h regard to any responsibility entailed by citizenship.

The argumen t tha t follows doe s not trad e on any ambiguity or delicate nuanc e in the term 'duty' . Thus, some may concede tha t there is, in the strict sense, n o duty to vote , yet affirm tha t omitting to vote is nonetheless

morally subpar.


Ou r claim is stronger. We argue that , unde r standar d

* 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 wh o challenged us to clarify and sharpen these arguments.

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


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circumstances, voting is no t morally superior to abstention. One does not do morally better to vote than, say, to spen d the time playing golf instead.

That is not to maintain tha t individuals hav e n o reason to vote. Some do ,

some don't . The same

is tru e for golfing: if voting /golfin g affords one

enjoyment or otherwise contributes to leading one' s preferred mod e of



then one has reason to vote/pla y golf; otherwise one doe s not.

We know of n o wa y to generate a general nonexistence proof of the duty to vote. Instead, this essay follows a strategy of enumeration . Sec- tion II specifies the range of voting scenarios over which th e discussion is meant to apply. The succeeding four sections take up , in turn , various families of arguments tha t hav e been offered in suppor t of the existence of a citizen's dut y to vote. Section III examines th e prudentia l case for a duty to vote. It is most often encountered in public service propaganda :

"Your vote matters! " "Only b y voting can you b e heard! " But these hardl y

amount to even an embryonic justificatory argument . Indeed, w e are

unaware of any importan t normative theory of democracy that locates the duty to vote in the enlightened pursui t of self-interest. Mainstream posi-

tive theories of

voting behavior do , however, routinely hypothesiz e that

individuals decide bot h whethe r to vot e an d ho w to vote as a pruden - tially motivated investment in political outcomes. By explaining wh y voting cannot reasonably be construed as that sort of straightforward advancement of self-interest, w e sharpe n the difficulties tha t will b e faced by the other normativ e theories to be investigated. Section IV examines the act-consequentialist case for a dut y to vote; Section V examines that duty' s putativ e derivation as the conclusion of a generalization argument. Section VI addresses the case for voting grounde d on an "expressive

ethics," one w e hav e elsewhere developed at some length an d found to supply the most persuasive rationale for th e moral superiority of voting over abstention. 3 Each of these, even th e last, ultimately fails to suppor t a general dut y to vote. We therefore conclude tha t n o such case can be made . There remains the puzzl e of why, given the insufficiencies of the supportin g arguments, there obtains a strong an d widely held intuition that voting is meritorious. Section VII offers some speculations concern- ing wh y this might b e so.



Sometimes one does wron g no t to vote . An impaneled juror wh o de - clines to cast a ballot concerning the guilt or innocence of the defendant

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 dut y to vote by putting in an appearance at the polls. See Geoffrey Brennan and Loren E. Lomasky, Democracy and Decision: The Pure Theory of Electoral Preference (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), ch. 7.


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fails to fulfill one of the dutie s attached to tha t office. Similarly, a univer- sity faculty member wh o absents herself from a departmenta l decision concerning a junior colleague's tenur e and promotio n case is, exceptional considerations aside, derelict. In bot h instances th e dut y to vot e is con- sequent on the individual' s occupying a special office or role, th e satis- factory performance of which requires, bu t is not confined to, casting a vote. (It is also par t of the officeholder's dut y tha t the vote be well- considered, based on admissible evidence, and so on.) To infer from these special cases a citizen's dut y to vote in general elections would , of course, be invalid.

One may, in virtu e of special circumstances, be morally obligated to vote in a general election. If, for example, Jones ha s promised her spous e that she will cast a ballot in th e upcoming presidential election, then she stand s unde r an obligation to d o so as an entailment of the dut y to keep promises one ha s made . If Smith is an active member of a political part y wh o ha s aligned himself wit h others in the task of securing its victory at the polls, then he may be guilty of ba d faith, of letting th e side down , if he chooses to spen d election da y sharpenin g his short iron play. The former explicitly, and the latter implicitly, voluntarily took on a commit- ment that created an obligation to vote which, in the absence of that undertaking , woul d no t hav e obtained.

A further qualification concerns the natur e of the venu e in which the general elections take place. Abercrombie lives in a small community in which all adul t residents routinely enlist themselves in public business. Among its tradition s are that individuals serve on variou s committees, attend town meetings, publicly announc e their views, and periodically make themselves available to hold dow n the community's elective of- fices. It is plausible to maintai n tha t Abercrombie and all his co-residents have a dut y to vote. They are the beneficiaries of practices of widesprea d political involvement in which each citizen plays a roughly equal an d complementary par t wit h all others. One wh o declines to vote or in some other manne r opts ou t can b e seen as free-riding on the exertions of others. 4 If Abercrombie ha s chosen to live in the community in order to secure advantage s arising from pattern s of citizen involvement, then the existence of the dut y seems manifest; if Abercrombie is the inadverten t recipient of benefits no t deliberately sought, the existence of a strict dut y derived from considerations of fairness is more questionable. 5 Even in the latter case, however, voting woul d seem to be more morally meritorious than abstention.

In Australia it is a legal requirement, backed u p b y a $50 fine, that all adul t citizens vote. That law may or may not be well-conceived. But if

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

  • 5 See Robert Nozick's discussion in his Anarchy, State, and Utopia (New York: Basic Books, 1974), 90-95.



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there is a moral dut y to obey th e laws of a reasonably just society, then Australians have a mora l dut y to vote. The latter dut y is entirely deriv- ative from the former. The subsequent discussion of the dut y to vot e is not meant to apply to cases like these. We explicitly restrict our discussion to voting in general elections b y peopl e wh o are unde r n o special obligation t o exercise the franchise and wh o are not required b y law to d o so. We further confine our attention to th e kind s of elections that characteristically occur in modern nation-states and their substantial political subunits in which populations numbe r in the hundred s of thousand s or millions and in which, for most individuals, political activity is only an occasional, part - time pursuit . When there is reference in wha t follows to a citizen's duty to vote, that is th e context w e hav e in mind .



How things go wit h a perso n can be substantially affected b y collective determinations. "Your vote makes a difference," the pre-election propa - ganda intones. If that is so, then pruden t individuals will vot e in order to augment the probability tha t electoral outcomes will favor their interests. If prudence is a dut y (or, if no t a dut y in the strict sense, then a virtue), then one ough t to vote.

Whether individuals owe dutie s to themselves, including a dut y of prudence, is debatable. That question can, though , be set to one side here, because the key premise of the prudentia l argumen t is defective. In any election wit h a large numbe r of voters, th e chance that my vote will make a difference to the outcome is small. O n most electoral occasions it will b e infinitesimal. Therefore, one aiming to maximize her own utility may have many alternative path s for doing so, bu t almost surely one of the least efficacious will be to bestir herself to cast a ballot in order to influ- ence electoral outcomes. That will b e so even if much hang s on the results of the election. 6

Consider an election between candidates/policie s A and B in which there are 2n other voters (in additio n t o Voter 1)7 Voter I will brin g about the victory of A if the other voters array themselves such that there are exactly n ballots cast for A an d n for B. In such a circumstance we describe the ith voter (Voter I) as being decisive. Otherwise, a vot e for A will not affect the electoral outcome. Thus, w e can represent the expected retur n to a vot e for A insofar as it bear s o n electoral outcomes as:

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.

6 6 LOREN E. LOMASKY AN D GEOFFREY BRENNAN (1) U,=p[V,(A)-V,(B) ] where U, p =
(1) U,=p[V,(A)-V,(B) ]
= Utility to a vote for A by Voter 1
- Probability of being decisive
V, (A) = Return to Voter I of A's being victorious
V, (B) = Return to Voter / of B's being victorious
We can, in turn, represent the likelihood of being decisive as:
(2) p = f (E, m)
E = Total numbe r of those casting votes
m = Anticipated proportional majority
More explicitly, holding other factors constant, the larger the number of
voters, the lower the probability of being decisive. Among these other
factors, the most significant for purpose s of this analysis is the expected
closeness of the result. Closeness here is usually conceived in terms of the
probability that an individua l voter selected at random casts a ballot for
A rather than B; the nearer that probability is to .5, the smaller m will be.
The direction of these relationships is intuitive. Less so are the relative
magnitudes. It can be demonstrated that p is a slowly decreasing function
of E bu t a very quickly decreasing function of m. To pass quickly over
calculational complications which we address at length elsewhere, 8 in a
large-number electorate the size of a U.S. congressional district, a voter
wh o woul d benefit a great deal from the victory of A over B (measuring
the benefit in monetary terms, suppos e the voter woul d gain $1,000) has
an expected retur n to a vote for A of a few pennies if m is zero. If, though,
the anticipated proportional majority is as small as .01 (i.e., the probabil-
ity that a randomly selected voter will vote for A is 50.5 percent), then for
U, to be valued as high as one cent, the ith voter must value A's victory
in excess of $1 million. But an anticipated majority of .01 represents what
we woul d normally think of as an exceedingly close election, one the
pollsters du b "too close to call." The formal model generates a conclusion
in accord with most people's intuitions: the chance that one's vote will be
decisive in a national or large subnational election ranges between van-
ishingly small and infinitesimal.
Voting is costly in the opportunit y sense. The time and effort and
perhap s other resources that go into casting a ballot have alternative
employments. These costs will vary from individual to individual, bu t for
virtually everyone these will be orders of magnitude greater than the
expected retur n to a vote as expressed in (1). Therefore, a rationally self-
See Brenna n an d Lomasky,
siveness, " 54-73 .
Democracy and Decision, esp . ch. 4, "Th e Analytic s of Deci-



interested individual will vote neither for A nor for B, bu t will instead refrain from voting. At least that will be so if voting is exclusively an investment in electoral outcomes. If, however, there are direct return s to a vote—avoiding a fine if one is an Australian, securing a pleasant war m glow if one simply enjoys the act of voting, and so on—then self-interest may indeed promp t one to vote. We can restate the individual's utility calculation as:

(3)U,. = p[V,(A)-V,(B) ] + S- C where S = Direct retur n to / of a vote for A C = Cost to I of voting

For reasons adduce d above, in virtually all large-number elections the probabilistic impact on electoral outcomes is nil, and thu s the ith voter' s utility is approximated very closely by:

(4) U,- = S - C

In other words , a pruden t individua l votes if and only if the direct retur n to casting a ballot exceeds the cost. Not e that voting so understoo d is a consumption good among other consumption goods, rather than an in- vestment in political outcomes. I may indeed hav e self-interested reasons to vote, bu t these reasons have virtually nothin g to d o wit h the advan- tages that woul d accrue to me from the victory of the more favored candidate. Casting a ballot, then, is similar to bowling or tending petunia s or listening to a "Metallica's Greatest Hits " tape : if one appreciates that sort of activity, then one ha s reason to engage in it; otherwise one does not. From the perspective of prudenc e there is nothin g intrinsically com- mendable or inadvisable about any of these activities.



The result of the preceding section is not likely to prove upsetting to many exponents of a citizen's dut y to vote. Few will hav e conceived it to be primarily a self-regarding duty. To the contrary: even if the act of voting involves some measure of persona l sacrifice it is meritorious be- cause of the benefits thereby conferred on the populatio n at large. That is precisely the point of speaking of it as a citizen's duty.

Nonetheless, a shift of perspective from prudenc e to the well-being of the entire community does not remove th e sting of the preceding section's analysis. If the inconsequentiality of voting renders it unimportan t with regard to one's own self-interest whethe r one bothers to cast a ballot, then that inconsequentiality also infects the claim tha t one is producin g some public good throug h exercising the franchise. It seems on first blush, then,

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that only a slightly modified version of the argument from prudenc e is needed to dispose of the argument from act-consequentialism. Why should minut e probabilities dra w one to th e polls in the latter case if they d o not in the former?

The answer the consequentialist will give is: because the stakes are disproportionate . When appraisin g voting prudentially, only one's own utility enters into the picture , bu t whe n thinking about how a vote can bear on the political community's well-being, everyone's utility counts. Moving from the micro to the macro dimension effects a change in degree which, because it is so great, becomes a difference in kind as well. Derek Parfit offers an analogy:

It may be objected that it is irrational to consider very tiny chances. When our acts cannot affect more tha n a few people , this may be so. But this is because the stakes are her e comparatively low. Consider the risks of causing accidental death. It may be irrational to give any

though t to a one-in-a million chance of killing one person. But if I wa s a nuclear engineer, woul d I be irrational to give any though t to the same chance of killing a million people? This is wha t most of u s


. When the stakes are very high, no chance, however small,

... should be ignored. 9

Some hyperbole in th e concluding sentence aside, Parfit's point seems undeniable : even very small probabilities that bear heavily on the well- being of a multitud e ough t to be incorporated in the deliberations pre - ceding one' s decision on ho w to act. Brian Barry interprets this as a generally applicable utilitarian rationale for voting:

If an act-utilitarian really gives full weight to the consequences for everyone that he expects will be affected, this will normally provide an adequat e reason for voting . If I think that one part y will increase the GNP b y 1 / 4 pe r cent over five years more than the other party, that for a utilitarian is a big aggregate difference. Are there really so many more beneficial things one could d o with fifteen minutes?



Do these observations indicate, then, that if w e extend the scope of our concern from one solitary individua l to many, there is a directly conse- quentialist rationale for a dut y to vote despite the minuscule likelihood of altering the outcome? In a word , no . We hav e no quarrel wit h the other sides of the respective analogies: it is, indeed, for almost all peopl e almost

9 Derek Parfit, Reasons and Persons (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), 74-75 (em- phasis in the original).

  • 10 Brian Barry, "Comment," in Political Participation, ed. Stanley Benn (Canberra: Austra- lian National University Press, 1978), 39 (emphases in the original).


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all of the time, a worthwhil e moral bargain to expend fifteen minutes to avert a one-in-a-million chance of a nuclear powe r plan t meltdown or to bring about a one-quarter percent increase in GNP over five years. What we deny is the relevance of these analogies to voting. There is n o question that a nuclear accident costing a million lives is a terrifically ba d outcome. Somewhat less spectacularly, it is also uncon- troversial that, all else equal, an increase in the national wealth amount- ing to several billions of dollars is welcome new s indeed. 11 A terrible disaster or its nonoccurrence; a noteworth y augmentation of the citizen- ry's wealth or its absence—who doubts wher e the balance of good lies or whether it is large enoug h to make a valid claim on one's attention and effort? But alternatives faced in electoral competitions are not of that sort. We do not see Party B campaigning on the platform, "We commit our- selves to doing everything that Party A promises and in exactly the way that Party A promises to d o it—except tha t in additio n w e propos e to sabotage a nuclear powe r plan t at the expected cost of a million lives"; or "We pledg e to ru n the economy much as Party A does—but one-quarter percent less efficiently." In hotly contested elections there is never any- thing approaching consensus concerning which candidate s or which set of policies will best secure the common good. Each side identifies some ends as valuable and propose s variou s political means to secure them. The competing sides typically will concur to a considerable extent con- cerning which items are to be valued an d which disvalued (both are pro-liberty; bot h favor prosperity) bu t will assign different weights to the various goods and bads , thereby differing in the trade-offs that they will countenance (for example: "Shall th e liberty of workers to strike be lim- ited so as to secure greater prosperity?"). Or they will differ concerning factual propositions ("We are/ar e not in th e midst of a period of global warming"). Or they will advance opposed judgment s concerning the in- strumental merits of different policies advocated to secure the end s they value ("Capital punishmen t will/wil l no t decrease the homicide rate"). Or they will disput e the competence or commitment of would-b e exec- utors of policy, or enter into subtle semantic debates (Is affirmative action best described as setting "goals " or "quotas"?). And so on. When each side has its fervent partisans, its roster of so-called experts, its loquacious evangelists, assurance concerning wher e the common good lies is ap t to be elusive.

This is not to deny that durin g the course of an election campaign there will be numerou s affirmations of unshakeable conviction concerning the manifest merits of Party A and the gross deficiencies of the candidates and policies pu t forward b y Party B. It is, though , to not e that their epistemic clout is tainted by outpouring s of equally confident testimony

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




issuing from the other side. There is, of course, nothin g surprising in the existence of this phenomenon . Political operatives are in the business of winning adherents to their cause, the more zealous an d unshakeable the better. To the extent tha t a candidat e or part y succeeds in persuadin g citizens—for most of who m political involvement is a very occasional avocation—that momentou s matters are indeed at stake and that here is the side of Truth and Goodness, the opponent' s side that of Disaster and Despair, citizens are thereby provide d wit h an incentive to make their

way to the polls on election da y and to cast a ballot in the desired direc-

tion. Ratcheting u p

emotional fever makes for loyal part y supporter s in

the political arena, much as it makes for loyal fans in sporting arenas. An important difference betwee n the two brand s of enthusiasm is that prob - ably not even the die-hard fans themselves are inclined to correlate th e lustiness of the cheers that ring aroun d them wit h epistemic warrant . Citizens embroiled in political campaigns do , however, mistake their ow n dept h of conviction for evidentiary weight. They shoul d not set an ex-

ample for theorists wh o conduct their analyses from a safe emotional distance.

By wa y of contrast to the Parfit/Barry analogies, a more recognizable (although still greatly simplified) renderin g of the voter' s scenario might

go something like this. Party A propose s a set of economic policies that

hav e some hard-to-quantify bu t non-negligible likelihood of

generating a

higher national produc t over the next five years than those of Party B: a best roug h estimate is something on the order of one-quarter percent per year. Party B's economic program , however, seems likely to yield some- wha t less inflation over the course of those five years. Complicating mat- ters further are conflicting estimates concerning the economic policies' respective merits wit h regard to effects on capital investment, unemploy - ment, the trad e balance, an d measures of economic equality. All that one can be reasonably confident of is that A's policies will d o better wit h regard to some of these, and B's policies will d o better wit h regard to others. And beyond the parties ' economic programs there are another two dozen or so major areas of dispute—over defense, civil rights, education, housing , environmental policy, etc. With regard to each, a greater or lesser degree of murkiness obtains; different trade-offs are on offer; bot h sides swear fealty to the common good. What is the conscientious act-utilitarian now to do? Does it still seem so apparen t tha t spendin g fifteen minute s to cast a ballot is one of the most socially beneficial things one can d o wit h one's time—especially if one ha s not previously invested for each of those minutes several dozen hour s devoted to securing and assessing relevant political information?

The utilitarian rationale for voting can be expressed by a variant of expression (1):

  • (V) U=p[V(A)-V(B) ]


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In this variant, relativization to the self-interest of the individua l voter is replaced b y a representation of overall effects on well-being. When the affected populatio n is large, U may be substantial even for very small p values. But wha t the preceding discussion suggests is that (1') stands in need of modification. It woul d be adequat e as it stand s if we could esti- mate wit h assurance the [V(A) - V(B)] term. Since w e cannot, however, the value of U must be discounted no t only b y the probability of being decisive but , additionally, b y the probability that one has overestimated or even reversed the respective merits of A and B. Call this the epistemic

discount rate.

Although the appropriat e rate of epistemic discounting will vary from election to election and , of course, from voter to voter, in virtually all real-world election scenarios and for the vast majority of voters, it will be large enough to bring the U term very close to zero. That is because political uncertainties are not all of one species bu t several, and they compound each other. First, as suggested above, one has to discount for mistakes in assigning comparative weights to the various competing goods (or, more rarely, for having identified as a good something that is a bad , or vice versa). Second, one has to discount for the fallibility inherent in empirical assessments concerning matters of fact and causal judgments concerning the instrumenta l effects of alternative policy options.

Third, one mus t then discount b y the likelihood that the platform on which the part y is runnin g is indicative of the actions that it will indeed undertake should it gain office. That is, even if one knew wit h certainty that giving effect to th e A platform woul d b e superior to realizing the B platform, the retur n to a vote for A ha s to be discounted by the probability that A will defect from its own standard . It is no t only inordinate cynicism about politicians and their campaign promises tha t might induce one to attach substantial weight to this factor; political history is full of spectac- ular and momentou s turnarounds . To take just twentieth-century United States presidential elections as examples, in 1916 Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection on the slogan "He kept u s ou t of war! " He wa s dul y reelected and then didn't . In 1964, Lyndon Johnson alleged that if the wron g can- didat e wa s elected the U.S. woul d find itself mired in an unwinnabl e land war in Asia. So it proved. And of course there is th e whimsically delight- ful insouciance of George Bush's "Read my lips; no new taxes!"

Fourth, one mus t discount for historical accidents and inadvertencies. Unpredictable wars , assassinations, stock market crashes, famine, or in- capacity of the officeholder might tur n wha t ha d ex ante seemed to be a good bet into an ex post loser. Fifth an d finally, one must discount all of the above by a measure of one's own judiciousness or lack of same as a political evaluator, asking: How well-attested is the dat a on which I rely? How adequat e are my technical capabilities in economics, international affairs, defense studies, social policy, etc. for supportin g the instrumental analyses I bring to competing policy proposals? Is my judgmen t liable to

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be affected b y any hidde n biases or blind spots? Ho w successfully have I managed to detach myself from evanescent enthusiasms so as to pre- serve a cool objectivity? And the like. If, after all the discounts are appropriatel y assigned, it still seems man- ifest tha t A is the better party/candidate , then one may hav e some utili- tarian reason to cast a ballot for A. But even then, perhap s not. If knowledge of the superiority of A is no t confined to some esoteric coterie bu t rather is possessed b y me because it is readily available to the citizenry at large, and if members of that citizenry for the most par t will vote against a palpably inferior candidat e shoul d they bothe r to vote at all, the n em- ploying one' s fifteen minute s to vote may, on utilitarian grounds , be inadvisable. Recall tha t the value of p is a rapidl y diminishing function of m, the expected proportiona l majority. If, say, for any representative voter in an electorate in which one million individuals cast ballots, it is .6 likely that she will recognize B to be inferior and thu s vote in opposition, then the likelihood of one' s own vote being decisive is so indescribably

small as to be entirely negligible. (If the question is, "Should we bestir ourselves t o avert nuclear meltdowns?" , ho w likely is it tha t m y vot e will be neede d to tip the balance?) To oversimplify a bit, on those occasions whe n one's vote is most likely to make the sort of difference that stirs the hearts of act-consequentialists, there will rarely be any firm indication concerning for who m it ough t to be cast; and when there is unmistakable evidence concerning which is the better candidat e or policy, it is almost inconceivable tha t one' s vote will be needed. Suppose, for the sake of argument, that all the preceding cautions could

b e met b y an exceptional public-spirited citizen

confident of he r ability to

evaluate the issues, judg e th e fitness of th e candidates, an d cast a well- directed ballot. That woul d still no t suppor t a general dut y to vote. Rather, it woul d at most show tha t there are consequentialist reasons for someone who is good at voting to d o so—and consequentialist reasons for someone wh o is ba d a t voting to abstain. If, for example, despit e m y best efforts I am more likely than no t to be a sucker for an inferior candidat e (this is my track record; pas t attempts to men d my ways hav e met with n o success; etc.), then I confer on the citizenry a benefit by staying at home on election day. It follows tha t there cannot be a completely general citizen's dut y to vote, because 7 am a citizen an d it does no t include me .

One does not, however, need so strong an assumption of political in- eptitud e t o suppor t a rational e for no t voting. That is because th e relevant measure of facility as a voter is comparative. To see that this is so, con- sider a radically simplified electorate of three individuals, voters X, Y, an d Z. X and Y hav e demonstrate d an aptitud e of .6 for identifying which of two candidates is the better one. Z is yet more skilled, with a success rate of 90 percent. When they all vote in an election contested by candidate s A and B, they select the better candidate—let u s assume it is A—whenever either X and Y, X and Z, Y and Z, or all three of them vote for A. That sums



to a success rate of 79 percent. But if X an d Y shoul d abstain, the likeli- hood of selecting the better candidat e soars to 90 percent. Whether those with lower voter-facility scores increase the likelihood of a favorable electoral determination by abstaining will depen d on the actual distribution of scores. So, for example, if X and Y each ha d a .8 aptitude , the expected value of the outcome woul d be diminished rather than enhanced by their abstention. But althoug h n o universal generaliza- tion is at hand , over a wid e range of distributions it will be the case that those wh o are considerably below the media n level of voter facility will improve electoral outcomes by abstaining. That will raise the median level of the remaining voter population , thereby making it incumbent on those citizens in the new bottom grou p to abstain. Again the median has been raised, and again a new crop of abstainers sprouts, the process iterating until only a small numbe r of extraordinarily acute political eval- uators remains in the voting pool. Something has gone awry, bu t pi - quantly so. For on the wa y to providin g a utilitarian argumen t for a citizen's dut y to vote, Parfit and Barry hav e (re) invented—the regime of Philosopher-Kings!

It could be argued in response that not everyone is a utilitarian. There will be lots of people casting ballots predicated on some incentive other than concern for the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Predict- ably, many will vote self-interestedly; others will cast ballots expressive of malice; some will just grab the lever closest to their dominan t hand . Some always vote for the Democrat, some never do , and others are as irregular as a quantu m particle dance. In virtu e of such diverse political phenom- ena, it is by no means out of the question tha t the consequentialist stakes are indeed large and that you r estimate of their size an d direction is substantially better than average. Unde r such circumstances, the utilitar- ian objects, there may well be a morally compelling reason for you to vote.

We need not look too deeply into the particulars of the sort of case hereby envisioned to observe that all such scenarios are intrinsically in- capable of supportin g a generalized dut y to vote . If they carry any moral entailments, it is not to a dut y to vot e simpliciter bu t rather to a citizen's duty to vote right. That is, assuming tha t A is the better of the two candidates,

V A >

Not voting > V B

where V A

represents voting for candidat e A an d V B represents voting for

candidate B. But this is not ho w a dut y to vote is suppose d to work.

Rather, whe n it is said that voting is morally meritorious, wha t normally is meant is that the goodness of rousing oneself to visit the polls is inde - pendent of the subsequent choice of which candidat e will receive one's vote. (There may be additional moral merit in ascertaining wh o is the best




candidate and then voting for that person, bu t this is in addition to that which attaches to the voting act as such.) On an act-consequentialist analysis, however, it is the direction of the vote that is crucial; any of those B voters woul d have done better with regard to his dut y as a citizen had he instead spent his fifteen minutes in the pub. 1 2 There is a further reason wh y the consequentialist case for a dut y to vote is strained. The argument hinges on there being matters of huge moment at stake so as to offset the tiny likelihood of one's own vote tipping the balance. However, there are good reasons in general to think that this will not often be the case—at least if democracy is working tolerably well. It is a well-established proposition in the for- mal literature on electoral competition that parties/candidate s will be constrained to offer policy platforms that lie not too far from that which the median voter prefers. In two-party electoral races of the familiar kind, political equilibrium, if it exists, will be characterized by the parties/ candidates locating themselves in near-proximity to each other, and this co-location result is quit e robust to assumptions about voter moti- vation. One does not have to take these formal models too literally to recognize the force of the simple reasoning at stake—namely, that com- petition tends to restrict the policies that parties will offer, to the extent that those parties are interested in maximizing their chances of being elected. Such centripetal forces depen d on the threat that voters will vote against things they d o not like—but if that threat has been effec- tive, then it is not necessary for citizens actually to exercise the fran- chise! In the limit, when rival candidates offer virtually identical policies, it seems inordinately precious to insist that we should all turn out because of some putativ e democratic duty. At least that is so within an act-consequentialist scheme.

We conclude that on every front the argument from act-consequentialism fails. It cannot suppor t a dut y to vote except when the stakes are very high, a circumstance which we have given reason to believe is rarer than is commonly mad e out. Even then, act-consequentialism does not support a dut y to vote bu t rather a dut y to vote right. Thus, it is not a dut y of the citizenry at large, bu t only of the political cognoscenti. Even for political junkies, a healthy dose of confidence that one is in fact voting right is rarely justified; and the more likely it is that such confidence is justified, the less likely it is that one's vote will be needed to tip the balance. Conclusion: On any list of the top thousand or so ways an ordinary citizen can usefully augment social well-being, casting a ballot on election day will either rank low or not be present at all.

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 implica- tions to these, and their resolution is, in any event, peripheral to an alleged duty to vote.



7 5



But wha t if everyone wer e to stay home and not vote? The results woul d be disastrous! Therefore, I (you/she ) should vote.

Some version of the preceding is, b y our casual tally, the most com- monly adduce d justification for a dut y to vote. It can be presented as a reflection on the utility ramifications of a general practice of nonvoting, or it can take on a more Kantian wrappin g in which willing the universal- ized form of the maxim "Vote only if it involves n o sacrifice of one's own interests " is shown to embody an inconsistency. Often, of course, it is neither, bu t merely the inchoate apprehensio n on the par t of the thor- oughly nontheoretical ma n tha t h e is doin g wron g b y abstaining from an activity that he woul d not wish most of his compatriots to omit. Although there are significant differences among variou s generalization strategies, the following analysis abstracts from those differences. Instead, w e at- tempt to identify certain features that regularly separate persuasive from less persuasive generalization arguments. We then show that the gener- alization argumen t for a dut y to vote falls among the latter.

To begin, w e note in passing that the claim that it woul d be disastrous

evident. 13 That is because the scenario unde r

if no one voted is far from

which abstention becomes universal ha s not been specified. There are an indefinite numbe r of possible world s in which n o one votes. In some there is n o voting because there are n o elections; in others there is no voting because there are no people . For purpose s of a generalization argument, some of these possible world s are more relevant than others. Presumably, wha t is intended is a scenario in which there are eligible

voters, there are contested elections in which they are at liberty to cast ballots, bu t all refrain from doin g so in order to pursu e their various privat e ends. That is a possible world sufficiently close to the actual world to hav e some purchase .

Even so, the indicated conclusion is ambiguous. To limn the details of this possible world, we might suppos e that peopl e abstain from voting because political determinations are largely irrelevant to their interests:

Collective action beyond that in which peopl e voluntarily engage is al- most never required to secure any appreciable good, and whe n it is re- quired, one candidat e for office is as likely as any other to d o a creditable job in orchestrating it. So n o one bothers to vote. Is this a woeful world in which to find oneself? To our eyes it ha s more the aspects of a paradise! Alternatively, for the sake of theological balance w e may speculate that no

13 Compare Anthony Downs 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 ratio- nally be motivated to vote even when their personal gains in the short run are outweighed by their personal costs."

7 6 LORE N E. LOMASKY AN D GEOFFREY BRENNA N one bothers to vote in
one bothers to vote in Hell because the totals invariably are corrupted.
Splitting the difference leaves one agnostic concerning the putative bad-
ness of universal abstention.
Such qualms dul y noted, let it be granted for the sake of argument that
generalized nonvoting woul d indeed be undesirable. Still, the indicated
conclusion ("Therefore
I/you/sh e ough t to vote") does not automatically
follow. It is notoriously easy to produc e arguments that display the same
surface form as the generalized-failure-to-vote argument, yet yield pre -
posterous conclusions. For example, suppos e that Dalrymple is consid-
ering leaving the farm to pursu e a career as a dentist. The question is pu t
to her, "What if no one grew fruits and vegetables?" The result, Dalrym-
ple admits, woul d be disastrous. Therefore, it is urged, she would do
wron g to abando n farming for dentistry. Against this suffices the retort,
"But not everyone will give
u p farming!"
By wa y of contrast, Throckmorton is about to take a shortcut across the
newly seeded lawn and is brough t u p by the reproof, "Well, wha t if
everyone were to walk across th e lawn? All the grass woul d be killed!"
The reply, "But not everyone will cut across the lawn; most people take
heed of signs than I do, "
carries distinctly less conviction. The two
cases display the same surface form, yet one intuitively is weak and the
other strong. What accounts for the difference?
We cannot here attempt to offer a comprehensive theory of soundness
in generalization arguments, especially as we are abstracting from differ-
ent underlying approaches to generalization. There are, though, certain
more or less readily identifiable features which attach to those general-
ization arguments that intuitively persuad e and which are notably absent
from those that d o not.
Sometimes by doing or refraining from some action one thereby per-
petrate s an unfairness. This will be so whe n one benefits from or otherwise
assigns positive value to th e opposit e typ e of performance on the par t of
others. By not doing as others do , one takes a free ride on their compli-
ance. When Throckmorton ignores the "Keep Off the Grass!" sign and
cuts across the newly seeded lawn, he thereby secures a quicker route to
his destination; whe n others comply wit h the directive, they get to enjoy
a flourishing green lawn—but so too does Throckmorton. The individual
wh o picks ou t an appl e from the orchard saying, "One won' t be missed,"
may be entirely correct, bu t he is thereby presumin g that the disappear-
ance of this particular appl e will no t be followed by the like disappear-
ance of bushels more; that is, h e is presumin g that others are more firmly
boun d tha n he is himself by norms of propert y ownership. 14 And simi-
14 Here the benefit secured by others' compliance extends primarily to the orchard owner
bu t 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.



larly for the casual litterer, the tax evader, the illicit occupier of "Handi - capped Only" parkin g spots, and their numerou s kin. In many thoug h no t all cases of such free-riding behavior, initial de - fection by one or a small numbe r of person s tend s to promot e further defections. In the extreme case the equilibrium outcome is universal de - fection. Suppose that one individua l backs ou t of payin g her share of the cost required to produc e some public good. That single act of defection increases the per-person cost of the good to the remainder of the group , which may, in turn , induce others to back out, and so on, until production is no longer sustainabl e an d th e free-riding behavio r becomes self- annihilating. This is one (not very Kantian) wa y of reconstructing Kant's demonstration in the Grundlegung of th e inconsistency generated b y ap - plication of the Categorical Imperative to a practice of borrowin g money in the expectation that one will not be able to pa y back the loan whe n it comes due .

In cases such as these, generalization is useful, if only as a heuristic device. It simultaneously levels the playing field and put s the tendency of an individual's action unde r a moral microscope through which the wrong- ness of the conduct is rendered evident. Free-riding, whe n generalized, is shown to be no more viable tha n the village in which everyone mad e a living b y taking in others ' washing. Strictly speaking, wha t makes an ungeneralizable action wron g is not that it fails the generalization test. Rather, it fails the generalization test because of underlyin g unfairness, and it is the unfairness that accounts for the action's wrongness. Passing a generalization test is secondary; fairness or th e lack of same is wha t is primary.

That is wh y some arguments tha t exhibit disastrous results of a certain generalized practice fail to persuade . They are examples in which the universal practice of S woul d indeed b e unfortunate , bu t not because of any unfairness embedde d in an individua l instance of S. Such is the case with the decision to abando n farming in orde r to take u p dentistry. When Dalrymple ceases to farm she doe s no t thereby perpetrat e any unfairness on those wh o remain in farming. Rather, each remaining farmer is, all else equal, rendered better off at the margin in virtu e of the lower level of

competition. In a large economy the effect may be so small as to be entirely unnoticeable, bu t the key poin t is its direction, no t the magnitude . Moreover, as one perso n or several peopl e leave farming, there is n o

tendency to set u p a spiral of further departures; just

the reverse. The

process is self-stabilizing, wit h inducements to remain (or, once having left, to return) growing progressively greater th e mor e wh o withdraw. The equilibrium that emerges is morally satisfactory; there will be both dentists and farmers, and neither reaps unfair advantag e at the expense of the other.

Abstaining from voting is more like choosing a profession of dentistry than it is like cutting across a newly seeded lawn or failing to pa y one's

7 8 LOREN E. LOMASKY AN D GEOFFREY BRENNA N share of taxes. Individuals wh o
7 8
share of taxes. Individuals wh o choose to vote d o so because, as modeled
in expression (3), th e benefits they secure from voting exceed th e costs.
Those benefits
are th e su m of direct returns to a vote—for example,
"having my say!" 15 —and th e retur n constituted by raising th e probability
of th e desired electoral outcome taking place. When an eligible voter
abstains, thereby lowering E, th e total size of th e electorate, th e proba-
bility p of one's ow n vote proving decisive increases. That is, each re-
mainin g voter is rendere d bette r off b y th e lower level of electoral
competition. In a large electorate, as wit h a large economy, th e effect of
one person' s withdrawa l ma y be so small as to be entirely unnoticeable,
bu t the key point is its direction, no t th e magnitude . Therefore, as in the
preceding example, th e process tends to be self-stabilizing. An equilib-
rium emerges that does no t have any evident morally unsatisfactory
Some will respond b y objecting that this equilibrium may be substan-
tially less than full citizen participation, perhap s well unde r 50 percent of
the eligible population, 16
an d therefore is objectionable for being less
democratic than full participation. We are unmoved b y this response
because w e are unsur e wha t it means to b e "more/les s democratic" an d
why in this context being more democratic should b e deemed better than
being less democratic. If "more democratic" simply means displaying
greater levels of citizen participation, then of course it is true that high
rates of
voting are more democratic than lower ones,
bu t it would be
begging th e question to take that definitional circumstance as a reason for
preferring greater participation. If wha t is meant is that democratic insti-
tutions d o better with greater levels of participation, then w e would need
to hav e a specification of th e normative criteria for "doing better " and
empirical ground s for maintaining that these criteria are more fully real-
ized wit h increased participation. It is no t obvious to u s that democratic
ideals woul d be better served if, instead of tw o major parties, there were
twenty, or if th e size of Congress were enlarged b y a factor of a hundred ,
or if elections were held on a fortnightly basis. Against each of these
envisioned "reforms," th e status qu o does no t seem obviously inferior.
Similarly, w e d o no t find it obvious
that election outcomes would be
"better" or political institutions more "legitimate" (in whatever nontrivial
senses of these word s might be supplied) if voting were to take place at
13 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," 32-53.
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 an d 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 In- website (


7 9

90 percent rather tha n 50 percent or even 5 percent participation levels. And even if more did mean better, it woul d still require further argument to show tha t this establishes a dut y to vote. Wishing not to prejudge such complex questions, we conclude this section b y observing tha t n o such dut y emerges straightforwardly from a generalization argument. 17



Not all that uncommonly durin g classroom discussions of the ethics of democratic participation which we hav e superintende d over the years, some studen t woul d rouse himself to a greater tha n customary pitch of moral seriousness an d exclaim, "If you don' t bothe r to vote, the n you don' t hav e any right to complain afterwards about wha t th e government does!" Often this rebuke elicits a buz z of approva l from the other students. It is not difficult to find any numbe r of reasons to dismiss this decla- ration as more passionate tha n cogent. In n o actually legislated bill of rights or credible theory of free expression is a right to complain about the activities of government contingent on one' s prio r electoral participation. And if there were such a theory, wha t woul d it look like? Would someone

who ha s voted for A over B hav e no right to complain about anythin g the government subsequently does shoul d A in fact defeat B? If one wished

to be sure of retaining the

right to complain, woul d it not b e pruden t to

vote for some obscure third-part y candidat e in order to assure that one is not muffled by one's prio r electoral support ? Doesn't the plausibility of this entire series of speculations presum e tha t one had—and then, by abstaining, irresponsibly squandered—some realistic opportunit y through one's vote to make a difference wit h regard to political outcomes, a prop - osition examined an d rejected in Section III? If n o voter or n o nonvote r is individually responsible for the outcome tha t emerged, wh y should one more tha n the other b e consigned b y shame or compunction or oppro - brium to silence? It may seem appropriate , in short, to conclude tha t this line of though t is the sort of sophomoric effusion not uncommon in a classroom of sophomores.

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 u p with an unambiguous criterion for determining whether one's proper home is among the under- or overrepresented.) Unsur- prisingly, if a generalization argument is directed at specific groups, it cannot really function as a generalization argument.

8 0 LOREN E. LOMASKY AN D GEOFFREY BRENNAN The dismissal is too quick. (Take th
8 0
The dismissal is too quick. (Take th e preceding paragrap h as a peda-
gogical confession.) The student' s response is, to
be sure, naive,
bu t it
conceals a promising insight that ha s largely been banished from more
sophisticated ethical theories. Interpreted charitably, th e response main-
tains that alongside, an d to a considerable extent independent of, direct or
indirect consequentia l consideration s there exist norms of expression.
Through one's spoken utterances an d other expressive activity, one aligns
oneself with certain values an d opposes others. To th e extent that it is
inherently an d no t simply instrumentally good to identify—and to iden-
tify oneself with—that which is good (and evil to align oneself with that
which is evil), an ethics of expression is no t reducible to even a sophis-
ticated consequentialism. 18
The universe of value is enormous, an d n o one can stand for everything
that is intrinsically worthy. Each of us , though, is situated by circum-
stance or b y ou r ow n prior choices in proximity to certain morally tren-
chant items. One's stance with regard to them goes a long wa y toward
defining one's character as an acting being. That stance incorporates both
consequentialist an d nonconsequentialist
aspects. N o more than th e
passionate sophomore are w e able to offer an in-depth account of their
knowledg e in
bu t w e woul d b e surprised if most readers d o no t ac-
their ow n moral lives expressive as well as outcome-
directed imperatives. In particular, w e expect considerable concurrence
wit h th e assessment that one is obliged o n suitable occasions to express
suppor t for certain practices an d institutions if one is to be entitled to play
any significant par t within them. Some examples:
To be a fan of th e Ne w York Yankees is more than to have a "pro "
attitud e toward th e Yankees' winnin g ball games an d pennants. It addi-
tionally involves a disposition to engage in activity that expresses support
of th e team. A true-blue fan ma y never actually attend a game, bu t if she
does sh e will cheer as th e Yankees load th e bases, an d will commiserate
wit h other fans as th e rally is snuffed ou t by a double play. Fans will
scream an d contort themselves even in front of unresponsive TV screens.
To observe tha t these antics d o n o good with regard t o th e team's win-loss
statistics is to miss th e point; th e practice of being a fan ha s very little to
d o with undertakin g consequentially fruitful activity on behalf of th e
object of one's passions an d very much to d o with expressing support.
Friendship is in some ways similar, in some ways different. Friends
d o act to procure goods for each other. One no t only expresses a wish
that th e friend's
times, however,
life go well bu t endeavors to make that be so. Some-
there is nothing
one can
d o
one's friend.
H e is
gravely ill; th e doctors will either find some wa y t o save him or they
not; it
is entirely ou t of one's ow n hands . But one wh o can d o
18 Nor is it in any obvious way a corollary of Kantian ethics, but this is a matter that could
bear further examination.


8 1

nothing for the recovery will nonetheless expressively support that even- tuality. 19 To d o otherwise is literally to rende r oneself a "fair-weather friend" —that is, not a genuine friend at all. The practice of friendship carries bot h consequential and expressive elements, wit h neither reduc- ible to th e other. Numerou s related instances can be adduced . The momentousness of particular items of our experience is regularly underscored via symbolic acts that express our respect, regret, appreciation, devotion, implacable opposition, or other intentional stances. On e wh o insists on representing all rational activity as directed toward the productio n of consequences will be unabl e satisfactorily to account for the retrospective dimension of our activity. For example, sacramental or commemorative activities will be systematically misunderstoo d a s essentially forward-looking—that is, as other tha n they represent themselves as being—if not indeed as em- bodying some harebrained confusion about the temporal direction of causality.

Not only in privat e life d o expressive considerations come to the fore. It is in the natur e of democratic politics that matters presented and widely acknowledged as items of momentou s concern to all members of the

polity are held u p to examination, debated, an d eventually pu t to popula r determination throug h elections. Even in the age of the professionally packaged candidat e and the ten-second soun d bite, a certain measure of pomp and ceremony still attaches to the electoral process, thereby em- phasizing that it is indeed serious business. The individua l in her capacity as citizen ha s an assigned role in this process. Outsiders may be affected

by the polity's

electoral determinations, bu t the citizen is, additionally, an

agent of those determinations. Through appearin g at the polls and casting a ballot, she expresses her engagement wit h the concerns and undertak - ings of her compatriots and displays her assent to the legitimacy of the public enterprise throug h which she and they are boun d together as partners within civil society.

Conversely, it can be argued, someone wh o chooses to be absent from the polls thereby expresses detachment from the enterprise, if not indeed active disdain. The doings of the polity are not his affair, he proclaims through his absence. It can go on withou t him—and h e very well withou t it. That which is a matter of profound significance to his neighbors does not merit the allocation of even a few minute s of token symbolic support . It is for this reason that one wh o fails to vote imperils any right sub -

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?




sequently to complain about the government—not in the technical sense of being legally barre d from doing so, bu t as an implication of common decency. One ough t not bothe r others b y raising matters that are none of one's business, and insofar as one wh o is eligible to vote declines to d o so, one is expressing a disinclination to acknowledge the business of the res publica as one's own. To complain after the fact may be within the law, bu t it is base. It is like fulsomely bemoaning at the end of the season the also-ran finish of the Yankees after making no prior effort to take in a game, to appris e oneself of the team' s fortunes, or even to cheer from a distance. It is anomalous in th e same wa y as gnashing one's teeth and weeping bitter tears at the passing of someone of whom, in life, one wa s oblivious. It is, we might say, an exercise of bad faith and is to be con- demne d as such. That is th e fleshed-out renderin g of th e student' s exclamation.

Abstention by itself is not ba d faith. It is, though , arguably discredit- able. The office of citizen is n o mean one, and to fail to display adequat e regard for the station can b e categorized as inherently condemnable. Not voting, so construed, is akin to declining to stand at the playing of the national anthem or tramplin g on the flag. Each is an expressively laden action that aligns one wit h certain political values and against others. Therefore, they are properl y subject to praise or blame in virtu e of wha t they mean, not simply because of wha t they bring about. The expressive argument for a dut y to vote maintains that one evinces a minimally Recent level of regard for the political weal by periodic appearances at the polls; to d o less is to d o too little.

Of all the rationales for a dut y to vote, w e find the expressive account strongest, if only by default. At one time we pronounced ourselves half- persuade d that the case it makes is sound, 20 bu t tha t no w seems to be an overestimation. The chief inadequacies of the expressive case for a dut y to vote are internal: the mere act of showing u p at the polls every several years and grabbing some levers is palpably inadequat e to qualify as a significant act of political expression.

Is exercise of the franchise to be construed as the expression of fidelity to the country's democratic institutions? Day-by-day residence withi n its borders an d adherence to its laws an d customs attests more explicitly and continuously to one's allegiance. Should the act of voting instead be construed as expressing some appreciation of the significance to the pol- ity of the particular issues an d debates that are spotlighted by the current election campaign? That is to read rather a lot into the act of voting. As exponents of a dut y to vote often remark, for most people voting is a low-cost activity. No political literacy test must be passed before one is allowed to matriculate at the polls. Because the ballot is secret, the direc- tion of one's vote is not subject to scrutiny and thu s lacks the expressive

2 0 See Brenna n an d Lomasky , Democracy and Decision, 186-89.


8 3

dimensions of a genuinely public performance. 21 A vote cast from habit- ual allegiance to one part y or TV-ad-induced prejudice o r whimsy counts as much a s one that is the produc t of diligent pre-election scrutiny of th e candidates an d issues. To presum e that th e act of voting expresses sig - nificant psychic involvement in th e political affairs of th e nation is like inferring from someone's sporadic church attendance a n abiding concern with th e theological ramifications of th e Augsbur g Confession.

This is no t t o deny th e expressive salience of political activity. We are among th e millions of peopl e worldwid e wh o were transfixed b y th e

televised image of th e anonymou s ma n in Tiananmen Square

wh o time

and again defiantly interposed his bod y before th e advancing tanks. We

admired hi s heroism for reasons quit e apar t from an y

speculations con-

cerning its likely effect o n th e decision making of th e autocratic Beijing gerontocracy. Similarly, we acknowledge the expressive richness that was inherent in political participation b y free citizens of th e Greek polis, Ro- man republic, o r Renaissance city-states. For them, political involvement gave shape to large swatches of a life in its public aspect. For some people today, it still does. But n o such elevated statu s can b e claimed for a

desultory visit t o the polls every few years. We d o no t deny that the rush of events can sometimes impose o n citizens certain expressive obliga-

tions; it may b e culpably shameless durin g times of great

civic unrest o r

national mournin g t o present oneself to one's compatriots a s uninvolved

and unconcerned. And w e acknowledge the coherence, if not the persua - siveness, of a republicanism that promotes vigorous citizen involvement

in public

affairs. There is, however, n o sense in attaching t o a perfunctory


political performance more expressive weight than it can bear.

Finally, there is th e simple point that refraining from voting can be n o less expressive than voting. One may wis h t o record one' s total contempt for all the candidates, o r one's conscientious objection to some policy that

is a feature of all th e major candidates' platforms, o r one' s belief that th e entire enterprise is a fraud an d a delusion. Turning one's back o n the en- tire business, refusing t o b e implicated—these ma y no t b e th e most ex-

treme forms of civic rebellion,

bu t they are ones that the democratic form

2 1 Se e Geoffre y

Brenna n an d Phili p


2 0 (1990)': 311-33 .

Pettit , "Unveilin g th e Vote, " British Journal of Political

  • 2 2 In th e mid-1970s, whe n soarin g inflation wa s ravagin g th e economy, Presiden t Gerald Ford commandeere d th e nation' s televisio n screen s t o displa y t o th e American peopl e WIN ("Whip Inflation Now" ) button s tha t the y wer e bidde n t o wea r a s a signal of their deter- minatio n to overcom e th e blight. At th e time , som e critics lampoone d th e button s as an ineffective instrumen t for combatin g ratchetin g pric e levels. That wa s unfair. What rendere d the WIN butto n ludicrou s wa s no t lack of causa l efficacy bu t rathe r its bathetic expressiv e quality. It wa s of a piece wit h Ford's erran t golf shots an d occasional airpor t tarma c pratfalls.

Much contemporar y passio n directe d towar d collecting newspaper s an d bottle s in re- cycling bin s ha s abou t as muc h effect on th e level of depletio n of natura l resource s as WIN button s di d on the level of inflation. However, recycling activity ha s an inne r complexity adequat e to rende r it expressively articulate wit h regar d t o th e end s thereb y endorsed . Recycling's wisdo m may be disputed , bu t th e practic e is no t inherently laughable .

8 4


characteristically admits. And compared to rushing to the barricades or join- ing the Michigan Militia, they hav e the adde d merit of civic gentleness. We might disagree in particula r cases concerning the moral advisability of ex- pressive abstention, but it is certainly not an incoherent practice.



One question raised b y the foregoing is why, if groundin g for a dut y to vote is so distinctly shaky, belief in its existence should be widespread and insistent. Although popula r sentiment is not decisive in these mat- ters, one might reasonably locate the onu s of proof on those wh o would call into question a venerable piece of folk wisdom. We believe that this onus ha s been successfully born e in the earlier sections. Since the argu- ment ha s proceeded b y enumeration , however, suspicion may remain that popula r sentiment rests on some significant line of suppor t that has been left unexamined. There is n o wa y to pu t such a suspicion entirely to rest, bu t it is rendered less acute if the prevalence of the belief can be explained by factors other than those that woul d constitute its justifica- tion. Three factors suggest themselves.

First, in some political environments ancestral to that of contemporary representative liberal democracy, the persona of the activist citizen was cen- tral in a wa y it need not and cannot be today. In republics wher e free adult males possessing affluence sufficient to allow attention to affairs of state wer e a small minority of a small population , the demand that all wh o were entitled to participat e shoul d d o so enjoyed considerable cogency. We are heirs to the political traditio n of Aristotle's Politics, Renaissance human - ism, the Federalist Papers. It is no t surprising tha t w e remain partially in thrall to ideals that wer e informed by very different conditions. 23 Civic re- publicanism is an ideology crafted b y and for political elites. Its classical formulations hav e nothin g to say about vast mega-states, universal enfran- chisement, widely shared economic affluence, far-advanced division of po- litical labor wit h concomitant specialization of function, neutra l public bureaucracies, moderate d part y competition, and a host of other shifts in circumstance that separate u s from our republican forebears. It is n o longer possible, let alone desirable, tha t all free citizens devote themselves inten- sively to public concerns. Insofar, though , as traces of that superannuate d republicanism linger, they suppor t an ethos of universal participation, the lowest common denominator of which is periodic appearance at the polls.

Second, belief in a dut y to vote promote s the self-esteem of voters. The public rhetoric of democracies is redolent wit h invocations of the dignity of active citizenship; it is fully one-third of government of the people , by the people , and for the people . Yet most individuals find themselves, in

23 Compare the transition from eighteenth-century

ideals of a citizen's militia



variety of contemporary enthusiasms for a right to keep and bear arms.




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ment wa s lax in its attention to the public weal, they woul d make terrible pests of themselves. The mean between these defective states is just enough participation to make ordinar y citizens feel importantly implicated in th e process an d n o more. Belief tha t voting is necessary an d sufficient to

enjoy th e statu s good citizen is

th e perfect moral underpinnin g for that

mean. N o wonder, then, political elites. Belief in a

that it receives such enthusiastic suppor t from dut y to vote is th e opiate of democratic masses.


We have argued that a

dut y to vote cannot b e sustained o n prudentia l

grounds , no r can it b e justified throug h act-consequentialistic, general- ization, or expressive reasoning. There are, though , several plausible ex- planations of wh y such a belief, thoug h groundless, can b e expected to enjoy wide currency among citizens of contemporary democracies.

That is not, of course, to argue that voting by citizens is morally wrong. Nor is it to call into question th e supreme importance of the right t o vote

enjoyed b y citizens of a democracy; o n that matter w e

chant in unison

wit h th e civics textbooks an d profess ourselves well-pleased

to live, in

jurisdictions in which suffrage is universal an d elections vigorously con- tested rather than, say, Burma o r Cuba. 24 It is no t even to argue against

legally compulsory

voting. 25 This much should b e clear. But w e know

based o n responses t o prior versions of this essay that some people will take u s to b e saying that voting is irrational, "a wast e of time. " No t so. There ar e numerou s good an d sufficient reasons wh y someone might decide to vote. The point is merely that th e belief that there is a general citizen's dut y t o d o so is no t among them. Through voting I can "get it off my chest"; I can evince solidarity with some cause o r candidate ; I can occupy a walk-on role withi n th e ongoing kaleidoscopic civil drama ; o r I can simply take comfort from being in step wit h my neighbors. 26 I n short, voting is like playing golf or being a member of a choral grou p o r piecing together patchwor k quilts: if it is th e sort of thing in which on e enjoys participating then there is a reason to d o so, bu t morality does not nudge , one wa y o r th e other, except in special cases. An d special cases d o no t make for a general duty.

Philosophy, Bowling Green State University Economics, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University

2 4 Nonvotin g n o more undermine s the foundation s of the righ t to vote tha n doe s remain- ing a bachelor undermin e a righ t to marry.

25 Consider a paralle l case: A law requirin g

tw o witnesse s for a will

to b e valid

is not

show n to be undesirabl e b y a proof tha t there is n o anteceden t moral dut y in the state of

natur e to hav e one's testamen t doubly witnessed . 2 6 Some of these reason s migh t explain wh y som e peopl e choose to bear modest tariffs by dialin g a special numbe r tha t constitute s a vote in a telephon e poll tha t elects nobod y and bring s about n o outcome .