Is There an Obligation to Vote?

Voting is often referred to as a civic duty, yet there is no shortage of Americans who choose not to vote.

People give all sorts of reasons for not voting. The most common reasons are being too busy/having conflicting work or that they were not interested/felt my vote would not count. Illness or disability is also not an uncommon reason for not voting.

Frankly, I don’t put much stock in people’s self-reported reasons for doing or not doing anything. As marketer Clotaire Rapaille – who developed the marketing vision for Hummer – will tell you, people commonly make an instinctual decision then come up with rationalizations to explain it.

But irregardless, many people don’t vote and have stated reasons for not voting. Perhaps some of those people – such as those with illness or disability – literally don’t have the logistic support to vote. But certainly, the majority of non-voters could vote if they tried.

Yet none of this answers the question – is there an obligation to vote?

In many ways voting is irrational. From what I know, I have never been the deciding vote in an election. Given my ideological similarity with those in my ward, city, and state, I am unlikely to ever cast the deciding vote in an election. So, really, in many accurate ways, my vote does not matter.

Of course, if nobody voted that would be a problem. And if no one of my demographic profile – my supposed “voter blocker” – voted that would be a problem, too.

But none of that changes that my own, individual decision to vote is, essentially, irrational. Just as I dismissed people’s reasons for not voting, one could easily dismiss people’s reasons for voting. We have a behavior and we rationalize it afterwards. Perhaps we just invoke terms like civic duty and obligation to make us feel better about this random little deed.

And, still, none of this answers the question – is there an obligation to vote?

I’d like to push this question even further, asking, is there an obligation to be an informed voter? Having an obligation to show up in a cramped room and mindlessly check a few boxes doesn’t seem particularly compelling.

But asking for informed voting is an even greater burden for the individual involved. If I was too busy to vote before, I’m certainly not going to have time to become informed. This demand also raises important questions about what it means to be informed – is the word of a trusted friend enough? What about inferring from party affiliation? What about learning from candidate ads or from the ads of PACs with agendas?

Are you informed if your information is biased?

The answers are entirely unclear.

But does one have an obligation to vote?

Perhaps the question is too narrow. An obligation to show up on designated days and draw some lines? That is uninspiring.

But the doesn’t mean we have no obligation. Anyone who is part of a community benefits from their membership in that community, and anyone who benefits from a community has an obligation to participate in that community.

For me, voting is an essential part of that participation. Even when I’m uninspired by candidates or feel that the system is stuck in a broken status quo. I keep irrationally voting because it is one of many things I do to participate.

I can imagine a society of corruption and rigged elections where refusing to vote could be a more powerful statement than lending legitimacy to the system. But, complain as I might, we don’t seem to be that far gone.

Refusing to vote is not a powerful statement. It is a silent assent. A willingness to be ignored. It is a triumph for those in power, with even less impact than my paltry ballot.

Is there an obligation to vote? Maybe not. But there is an obligation to participate. From inside the system and from outside it. You can do both, and you can do both simultaneously.

And right here, right now, a vote may be a tiny tick in the universe but it is a piece of the larger puzzle, and a piece a good citizen ought to participate in.


One thought on “Is There an Obligation to Vote?

  1. Pat

    I thought about this all day Tuesday as people said “I did my civic duty.” Maybe one reason people don’t vote is they don’t like obligations. I try to say it’s an opportunity. I saw a sign that said “Refusing to vote isn’t rebellion, it’s surrender.”


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