Devil’s Advocate: do we have the right to judge those who don’t vote in elections?

ballot box, election
Photo: Creative Commons

YES – Kimon Sourlas-Kotzamanis 


Living in a democracy entails that people will sometimes make terrible decisions that will drastically affect the future of everyone living in that state, or even beyond. We still cherish democracy even when it is broken, and we have to accept the fact that circumstances are such that the government that is supposed to represent us has little in common with our own views of how the country should look like, or even our values. It is true that in such scenarios, like staying up all night to follow the US elections only to learn that an unqualified demagogue has just been elected president, we naturally want to blame someone. And sure, some are more blameworthy than others. However, knowing that people could have prevented such a terrible result by getting out to vote angers me, and I believe this anger is justified for multiple reasons, which I will demonstrate below.

Firstly, I believe a strong enough argument is the simple consequentialist approach: if people voted for the “lesser of two evils” (e.g. Hillary Clinton), some overall harm would be avoided. The candidate you vote for doesn’t have to be the best candidate. Not even a very good one. As long as you can see that one of the candidates is worse, in that their vision for the country would affect negatively the livelihood people in the country and the world, then you have an obligation to prevent them from getting elected. In a first-past-the-post system, voting tactically is the only way to do that. In that respect, I would argue that we are right to judge those who voted third party as well. In general, I believe we are right to judge those who could have prevented harm to many by incurring little cost to themselves, in this case by swallowing the fact that they would be voting for a candidate they are unenthusiastic about and getting to the poll station. One might object that at least they don’t get blood on their hands by helping elect a bad government in the case of voting for the lesser of two evils, but that would assume that they would keep their hands clean by not voting, which is certainly not the case. By actively choosing to abstain, you knowingly allow even more evil happen, and you have to take responsibility for doing that.

Photo: Creative Commons

If you’re still not convinced that judging non-voters is right, you may also not be considering the full scope of democracy. Election day is the day once every few years – or once every few months if you’re from Greece like I am – that your opinion gets to have an influence. You are called upon making an informed decision on what the good is and who is more likely to achieve that good. By not voting, not only are you disrespecting all those who have historically fought for their right to have their voices heard, but you are also making a statement on what the good is. If you don’t vote because you don’t care enough, you should be criticised because the livelihood of so many others – the systemically disadvantaged, immigrants, women, LGBT+ people and others – depends on your vote, and it is selfish to disregard that. Also, if you don’t vote because you believe that “all politicians are equally bad”, you are not excused. It is either the case that you are not informed well enough – which is again your responsibility as a citizen – or that your understanding of good and bad is very twisted, for which you should also deservedly be criticised. When, in the case of my country, a neo-Nazi party runs for office, by not voting at all, you voice the opinion that any other party is as bad, which is clearly not the case. Sure, they may be corrupt, have unfair tax plans or whatever, but they are not literally fascists, and they are at least willing to respect certain rights, liberties, and democratic principles. In the recent example of the US election, everyone who did not vote has effectively stated that one unlikeable politician with possible ties to big banks is as bad as the candidate who ran the most hateful and vulgar campaign we have witnessed. They are entitled to that opinion, but I will judge them for it.

We have to accept that our democracy is flawed, because people are flawed. Yet, if we want to bring about change, we can’t just refuse to play by democracy’s rules. Radicals, either on the left or the right, are going to have a larger turnout when there is a candidate that represents their values. Don’t let them shape the discussion by being the loudest voters. Had the US elected a Democrat president for a few consecutive terms, the Republicans would get the message that they need to be more inclusive and more open to the liberal values that are more prevalent within young people and minorities. But now, with the election of Trump, we are back where we started, as if the catastrophic Bush presidency or Obama’s ‘hope’ campaign didn’t happen. If Trump’s presidency turns out to be as even a fraction of as bad as it seems, I know who to blame.

ballot box, election
Photo: Creative Commons

NO – Henry Ford


I used to roll my eyes when Russell Brand would drone on about not voting as a political statement. I thought to myself: “why wouldn’t you vote?”. Abstaining from voting seems, at first glance, to be a preposterous violation of a norm which is woven into the very fabric of democratic society.

Over the years, the outcomes of many elections and referenda have been challenged with reference to the proportion of people who could have voted but didn’t. There is an argument that the results would have been different if every eligible voter had cast their ballot paper, or even that they are not fair until everyone has. Logical though it sounds, this is not the case. In the referendum concerning the UK retaining membership of the European Union, we saw record-breaking numbers – 72.2% of registered voters – turn out to vote, and yet still people claimed that the result was unfair. Clearly, the result can’t have been down to a lack of voters, since so many people participated in the referendum.

In the aftermath of a democratic exercise in which different views are represented and voted for, a section of the public is always going to feel disappointed, or even cheated, that they did not get the outcome they desired. This is the inevitability of democracy. But it seems that those who chose not to vote are often made into a scapegoat for post-election bitterness, demonised as a target for people throwing their toys out of the pram over the result.

Russell Brand
Photo: Creative Commons

In the case of the recent US election, a massive proportion of those registered to vote chose not to, bringing this debate to fruition once more. Though estimates vary, at least 40% of the public didn’t vote, and many have since argued that this huge chunk of voters could have created a much fairer outcome. Even though I’m not American, I can see the appeal of refraining from voting in this election. The right to vote only works if there’s someone or something worth voting for and, in the eyes of many American citizens, there wasn’t.

This is perhaps the wider point that needs to be addressed here. It was always going to be an unfavourable outcome in the US, so a large proportion of the public chose to show their distaste for the election by not even casting their votes. In many ways, not voting is a much louder political statement than simply voting for A or B. Without meaning to sound like a revolutionist here, perhaps more people would vote if there was a better display of democracy on offer. It’s all too easy to criticise somebody for not voting before one has even learnt why. Imagine you go to a restaurant for dinner and discover that on the menu there is either beef or pork. This is brilliant if you really like beef or pork, because then you can choose which one you will have. But it seems harsh to force a vegetarian to want one of them, since they wouldn’t ever choose either of them in ordinary life.

One of the arguments for making voting compulsory is that if a person does not wish to endorse the choice of candidates then they are perfectly entitled to just spoil their ballot. But, to all intents and purposes, spoiling your ballot paper is the same as just not voting at all. Furthermore, a more serious problem of this Australian-style system of compulsory voting is that it results in ‘tactical voting’; voting for A over B because you don’t like B. As soon as you start spoiling your ballot or voting tactically, then the very purpose of the ballot is jeopardised. It also says a lot about the state of democracy if such an important tool is being manipulated; the fact that people will, quite openly, cast a vote even though it is not representative of their view throws into question the effectiveness of the voting system as a whole. Voting is, after all, meant to be a way for a country to decide its own leaders.

I am a firm believer in the idea that the only wasted vote is a vote you don’t believe in. Controversial results occur more regularly not by people not voting, but by people voting tactically – we saw this in the 2015 UK General Election, when a Conservative majority government was voted for, largely because people simply did not want a Labour government. Whilst it is true and shall never be forgotten that “people died for you to have that vote”, they didn’t die for you to have to vote. Voting is the right and privilege of everyone registered in a democratic society, but just as we should not judge someone based on who they voted for, we should not judge someone for choosing not to vote at all.



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