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You don't get to choose whom you vote for: the rationality & morality of voting

Is voting rational? Whether it's that or not, is it moral? Both the rationality and morality of voting have been subject to serious doubts by philosophers. We will discuss some problems surrounding the very idea of voting.

If you don't get a chance to read anything else on this topic, take a look at this article, "Your Vote Doesn't Count: Why (almost) everyone should stay home on Election Day" (Thanks, Gene.)

Some say voting is not a moral act but a political act. It is, of course, political---that is, it is concerned with shaping social institutions and constructions of power, but moral questions arise as soon as we consider the consequences (assuming it has any) of voting mediated through those institutions for individuals. In theory, vast resources and countless lives, both their existence and quality, are at stake. What could have more moral import than that?

But before we even get to consequences, we hear people sometimes say that we should vote in a categorical way as opposed to being urged to vote this way or that merely because of an agenda. If the implication is that I am doing wrong not to vote at all---not just that I do wrong not to vote as you would wish, we have a moral problem. You are in effect saying I have a duty to vote. Where does that duty come from? Is it because it is a rational act with beneficial consequences for me? Or is it incumbent on me to vote for some other reason? What could that reason be?

Assume there are good reasons to vote. What are they? What do we think we are doing when we vote? And is it a good thing?

Two basic philosophical questions surround the idea of voting are:

1. What effect does the act of my individual vote have on the outcome of an election?

2. Whether or not it has an effect, is the practice of voting itself moral?

The first question is empirical but may miss entirely the real point of voting for many.

The second question leads to other questions that may undermine our motivations and perhaps the very institution voting is a part of. Assuming voting can be moral, is it always so? What is required to make it moral? Is that requirement often met? If it's not, what does that say about the general practice? And the institution of which it is a part---democracy?

The two basic questions are independent of each other although the answer to the first may color our thoughts about the second.

We will explore these questions by looking at three possible and distinct motives commonly had for voting.

1. Helping effect an outcome.

I think this is the naive answer to why we vote. It is the reason we may learn as children for why voting matters. Imagine a tug of war with many on each end of one rope pulling in their direction. You can choose to help one team or the other. It is undeniable that your effort may just conceivably make all the difference in the world. It might be your effort that decides which side wins. Logically, this is possible.

But it is possible I might win a million dollar lottery having purchased one ticket. The probability---as distinct from the possibility---is another question entirely. Is buying a lottery ticket a responsible way to promote my future financial security? No? Then, how can I think that voting is a responsible way to effect change in the people and policies that govern me or us? There is mathematics to suggest that my voting in mass elections is vastly riskier than any million dollar lottery as an effective way of nudging a probability in my favor. (See Gelman, Silver, and Edlin, "What is the probability your vote will make a difference?" (2008)) The overwhelming majority of us have less than a one in a billion chance of having our vote decide a national election. It's been suggested that the first hundred thousand who vote actually decide such an election, the rest are spinning their wheels.

In cheering on my team at a stadium along with thousands of others, do I really think the noises I make, in adding to the general din, will give my chosen team the edge? There is undeniable force in crowds. (Whether there is real "wisdom in crowds" is more controversial.) But the question is about the contribution of my individual shout to the desired effect: my chosen team winning. It is not about the chances of one team or the other winning. Of course, large voting blocks or mobs of fans may have power to effect outcomes, but that is not the question. The question is, given the improbability that my vote will make a difference and given that there are opportunity costs in voting---both costs to myself and others, it can easily seem I could be doing something more productive with my time. (And, by the way, if you think these costs are small and don't find that fact---in itself---disturbing, wait until the end of this write up when the thought of how relatively "easy" it is to vote will return to haunt us.)

Is it worth my time to vote in mass elections? There are serious arguments that suggest that the answer is no or, at least, almost never. An election would have to be nearly tied for the probability that my vote would make a difference to begin to be rationally compelling. That likelihood in mass elections is measured as one in ten million under the very best circumstances. But it is one in billions for most of us.

There may be, however, other independent motives we might have for voting that sidestep this worry.

2. Personal expression.

We might vote because it makes us feel personally good. I call this the self-help motive. We may see voting as as a form of therapy, a way to relieve pent up feelings, even as a positive enjoyment in itself. We are expressive creatures. It shows in the many ways we customize our lives, given the chance. People expend great resources customizing their lives, most of it without a thought to some end external to the pleasure it gives. So this motive is plenty powerful all by itself. Not everyone who buys lottery tickets is duped. To many it is fun knowing you just might win. If you don't win, but you play, you can claim the (barest) excuse to complain, unlike those who venture nothing. Pure logical possibility seems a source of great amusement to many.

But there are two moral qualms with this motive on its face, though they may be incompatible with each other. One is that the self-therapeutic attitude is not serious enough. Voting, some will say, ought to be more productive than merely providing release or pleasure if it is to play a pivotal role in a democratic state. Important things hang in the balance. Those who make this objection will have to deal with the problems besetting the outcome-based motive above.

The other objection is quite different. It stirs up something vaguely paradoxical about the very idea of voting. If my personal expression is too personal how can I possibly think this is of interest to others, put another way, where is there room for personal expression if there is always going to be two (or fewer) options? (There will always be chocolate or vanilla ice cream, but, if I really prefer almond rocha or Earl Grey or roasted apricots and cream or something even more exotic, like caramelized onion or black pepper, how often can I expect to find these tastes satisfied?) The election would have to be very local for even the possibility of such a luxurious choice as that between three let alone as many options as I, with my refined political palate, might like. The structure of mass elections actually seems more about precluding choice than enriching it. Choice is treated like a bad thing: get rid of it if you can; if not, minimize it. Isn't that what primaries are for? And two, invariably, is what it comes down to. Is a choice between two better than one?

Aesthetically, yes, just barely. But at least under one conception of morality---tacitly appealed to sometimes when we try to sell people on the idea of voting, the idea of being content with a forced choice between two things is actually not just aesthetically unimaginative but verges on moral abomination.

Morality presupposes rational and critical intelligence. Honoring such intelligence requires information. Information demands scrutiny. Scrutiny breeds sophistication. Distinctions get made. We may (God forbid) get picky! Ignoring critically arrived at distinctions is morally (and intellectually) irresponsible. If voting forces us to ignore them, if voting runs roughshod over my well thought out opinions in the aftermath of having been promised that my opinion mattered (not just any opinion from a poorly stocked shelf but my well-considered opinion!), then voting is implicated in immorality. Voting is a charade. It was always about bait and switch. And, further, sometimes critical thinking demands that some ready-made distinctions served to me be seen as vacuous. A woman in the Rwandan massacre was offered a choice between death by machine gun or machete. Such a choice makes a mockery of the dignity presumably the freedom to choose is supposed to honor.

The moral difference between "voting" in an autocracy where the effective choice is nil and "voting" in a democracy in which the possibilities will always be narrowed to two is a hard one to make out. Moral discrimination seems to require a plurality of choices. Two is second best to the worst.*

If someone responds that we have to face political reality (as Churchill implied in his famous line about democracy being the worst form of government but for all the others), fine. But morality has never been content to constrain itself to reality. It may be that reality is morally indicted. Which means it needs fixing. (We'll come back and fix reality on some other occasion! Here we are concerned merely to sketch the problem which seems at least the first step in such an endeavor.)

In any case, to deny that voting morally demands a high---perhaps, a very high---degree of critical scrutiny, is to undercut any moral compunction we may have about not voting. We cannot have it both ways: both be moral and refuse to listen to our moral scruples. Either voting is deadly serious, in which case restricting our options to two is a mockery of it, or we have the real reason for voting completely wrong. Our personal preferences, let alone our fine-grained scruples, don't matter. Something else entirely does.

Perhaps our individual opinions---morally scrutinized or not---are not what voting is really all about? Perhaps voting has nothing to do our conscience---despite what you may have heard. That or we should have a very dumbed down conscience, one not inflated with opinions that are not also shared by many, many others. The thought seems strange that voting may have little to do with individual opinion.

3. Group solidarity.

Voting may be about affiliation. It may mostly be about being a brick in an edifice. It may be about participating in something bigger than yourself. The real freedom in voting may be not to exercise choice between a plurality of options that might bog you down in fine discriminations but about whether to participate or not. Pick your poison from among the two. Don't like your choices? Develop a taste for them. These are the only games in town. Blessed are those whose conscience conveniently finds comfort in one of them. Rather, come to see voting as an opportunity to transform yourself, to shed your local allegiances including those to conceptions of yourself as disconnected and truly autonomous. Your personal and moral scruples, if they are too tied to your personal importance, require being put in their place: their place is circumscribed by others---many, many others. Political participation is always first and foremost about rooting out the most tolerable outcome in the view of the largest number of others with whom you must live. Anything that gets in the way of this is counterproductive---morality, included. We will re-describe morality to fit political reality if it complains.

Accepting this picture, we may preserve something of our personal dignity by seeing voting as a charitable act: a giving up of one's right to choose in favor of one's duty to participate. Learn to be grateful that your choices were minimized to two and not one.

But if the object of voting is charity, it seems there are plenty of other ways, perhaps even more meaningful ones, in which we might expend our efforts. Self-sacrifice or diminution of self can be achieved in many ways. Suppose I care about the less fortunate or the environment or national security or the world community or just the people I know. I might devote time to a food bank or volunteer at a hospital or adopt a street, a park, or a hiking trail; take the time to reduce the waste my consumption entails; work to improve how people in other parts of the world view us so they don't "hate us" so much; arm myself and support efforts to disarm governments, e.g, privatize the military; become a survivalist; work extra hard to create jobs faster than others lose them; stay healthy so I won't become a burden on others; etc... Or just go quietly about my life as though politics did not exist! That, too, can be interpreted as an act of self-effacement. These things are not suggested as necessarily superior replacements to voting (though they might be). They are suggested as legitimate alternative ways, at least as good, for those of us uninspired by the idea of voting as a way of contributing to society---ways we may understand and value better. Leave the voting to those who believe in it.

For those who think that voting is a lot easier and a more civilized method of changing the world than altering one's lifestyle or raising one's fist in the streets, think again, that is---if doing the right thing matters to you. If you think voting is easy, you probably are not voting carefully, you are probably not bothering to spend large amounts of time familiarizing yourself with the people and the issues, with consequences of voting one way or the other, with the history of the issues, with the technical realities that a policy change must contend with, with likely reaction of those who do not agree with you, with a thousand other things, in fact. Voting done right is---or ought---to be hard work, very hard work. We typically get the results we do because not enough people want to do this work, or at least this case can be made. Jason Brennan has argued that the "duty to avoid voting badly is grounded in a general duty not to engage in collectively harmful activities when the personal cost of restraint is low." Really, how hard can it be to just stay home and resist the urge to vote carelessly?

The puzzle about voting:

Either countless lives and trillions of dollars are at stake when you vote in mass elections or none of that is really true. Which is it? If true, no act you might do is more laden with moral responsibility. If not, hopefully you enjoy the gesture for its own sake, but there is no need to get too worked up about it if you don't.

I think whatever sacredness may once have attended the idea of voting is eroding. This opens up other things one might do with one's vote.

Vote gifting

Moreover, if the object of voting is charity, then it ought to be commendable to literally give one's vote to someone who may value it more than we do. I might give my vote as a birthday or Christmas gift to someone more electorally engaged than me, someone more invested: that is, I may promise to vote as they would. Just because my vote means little to me doesn't mean it may not have great value to others.

Vote selling

And if it is ok for me to give away something of such value, why can't I sell it? Why is vote-selling illegal nationally and in every state? What is the moral reason for that? Or is there any? If voting is supposed to be a personal right to the disposition of my opinion as I see fit, why can't I sell it to someone who makes me an offer of something that does have value to me. Let's assume there is nothing morally sacred about my vote, nothing that ties it to something special or peculiar about me. (If you think otherwise, review the questions raised about the second motivation above). Again, assume my right to vote is a personal possession like any other I might lay claim to. Society has seen fit to equip me with this privilege at a certain age in order to canvass my voice in matters that pertain to it. That was nice of society, but why would I care to use the privilege? To serve my interests, right? (If not, whose interests?) Suppose it would serve my interest better to get something material in return for this privilege. Suppose I just can't get excited about the candidates, but I really could use some money, and a candidate or someone on behalf of a candidate offers me money for my vote. Informal surveys seem to suggest most Americans would sell their vote if offered somewhere between a thousand and ten thousand dollars. A few would sell for the price of a sandwich; a few claim they would sell their soul before considering the idea; but these, both those who price their vote at the cost of a sandwich or their soul, are few: they are outliers. One study involving three thousand students at NYU found that, if offered a million dollars, half would sell---not just a vote in one election, but their right to vote for life!

There are not many formal studies on this question. Pinning down these numbers more accurately seems something not many researchers are too eager to do. Why is that?

A 2000 article in Slate discusses how a web site,, promoting vote selling was shut down by the authorities. The site had attempted to offer a marketplace where vote sellers and buyers might come together. Hans Bernhard, an Austrian, according to Slate,

"[a]fter acquiring the site for an undisclosed price,... relaunched Vote-auction last month with new features, including a 'voter empowerment kit.' The kit lets users download a form letter asking candidates to pay them directly for their vote instead of spending money on advertising. 'Since you are spending so much money on this year's election, why not give it straight to the voters instead?' the letter reads. 'For a mere $____, you can influence my vote directly and be assured of my support. I look forward to doing business with you,' it closes."

What is morally wrong with selling my vote? (I mean beside the fact that it would be like my selling you property at a good price on Mars I had inherited from distant relatives.) We can only guess that it is viewed as akin to flag burning. It diminishes respect for a sacred institution. Why is it sacred? Is voting an act of piety of some sort?


Needless to say, people may combine any or all of the above motives. And perhaps there are other motives that do not reduce to one of these three, though I do not know of any. I imagine that the average voter votes out of habit or tradition. He or she will say voting "makes a difference," that it is a wonderful privilege not everyone enjoys, and that there is enjoyment in losing oneself in a collective effort...

Is voting, then, quasi-religious? Does it actually require faith? Are evidence and rational scrutiny irrelevant to the act of voting? If so, that's not how it has been sold to us. Voting is often described as a "sacred right." Perhaps that should be "sacred rite."

But whatever personal or spiritual value voting may have, I think it is highly questionable what difference it makes, how wonderful and how moral it is. I think voting has problems if it has consequences---and if it doesn't, that is a problem, too...

Be sure and vote in November!


* The affront to the dignity of choice might be relieved by alternative voting schemes. Here's an amusing explanation of how one such might work (instant runoff voting) as proposed in the UK in 2010. But the philosophical point I am making---that a substantive idea of "choice" bears only a homeopathic relation to voting, I think, still stands.


On the morality of voting:

Jason Brennan, "Polluting the Polls: When Citizens Should Not Vote," Australasian Journal of Philosophy 87/2 (June 2009). Brennan's principle: "[The] duty to avoid voting badly is grounded in a general duty not to engage in collectively harmful activities when the personal cost of restraint is low. Good governance is a public good. Bad governance is a public bad. We should not be contributing to public bads when the benefit to ourselves is low." Brennan's book on the subject: The Ethics of Voting.

On vote selling:

Steven Rieber, "Vote Selling and Self-Interested Voting," Public Affairs Quarterly, Vol. 15, No. 1 (Jan., 2001), pp. 35-49. Steven Rieber argues that if self-interested voting is moral (and "self-interested" is defined as not also other-regarding), then vote selling is only slightly less morally acceptable than self-interested voting. (I think Rieber's idea, in conjunction with other points that could be made about voting, is actually understated.)

Related Video

The discussion in the first half of this video with philosophers Jason Brennan and Neil Sinhababu raises questions about how important political liberties, including that to vote, can be to individuals.


Don't try to sell your vote (just yet) or this might happen to you. Here's the federal law.

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