Obama and the Latino Vote: Falling in Love Again?

DipticBy Dr. Ana Margheritis, Reader in International Relations at University of Southampton (Twitter, Academia.edu). You can find more posts by Ana here.


A bold attempt to regain initiative capacity is shaping the last years of Obama’s second term in office. In late 2014 he announced the launching of two executive actions of great impact in domestic and foreign policy: a relief program to stop the deportation of millions of undocumented migrants (mostly from Latin America) and the initiation of conversations to reestablish relations with Cuba. These two decisions affect directly sectors of the electorate of Hispanic origin that have been crucial in his electoral victories. It is plausible then to expect that these measures will have some repercussions in the next electoral cycle. David Ayón and I addressed the roots and (still uncertain) fate of these initiatives in our publication entitled “Obama’s Latin Turn: A Strategy of Structural Change?” forthcoming next month in Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica.

We argue that the content and timing of this policy shift cannot be understood without taking into account the evolving demographic and political profile of the highly diverse but increasingly integrated Latin American immigrant groups in the US, and in particular their role in domestic politics. We trace the careful crafting of a special relationship between the president since he was presidential candidate and the community of Hispanic origin, the use of specific tools and policies, the arduous negotiations to cope with obstacles to immigration reform, the launching of executive actions to overcome the stalemate, and the subtle mechanisms that allowed Obama to rely on the Latino vote to win elections since 2008. The historical and statistical account in our article leads us to questions of relevance for political scientists and practitioners alike: Is the next presidential election the opportunity for Democrats to forge a new structural and sustainable re-alignment in the party’s electoral coalition? Would this finally be “the time of change” as Obama announced it in his first campaign?

Far from predicting an outcome, we point out to the potential impact of the presidential leadership on the articulation of electoral and governing coalitions in the long term. We place this variable in historical context and in a broader domestic politics dynamic. Here are some of our points.

First, we note that it would be problematic to generalize about a proper “latin” community. Immigrants of Hispanic descent in the US are a highly diverse group. Their potential capacity to mobilize politically is proved and, therefore, they have to be included in candidates’ political calculus. But the formation of a coherent and independent front is still a matter of controversy. In addition, their voting turnout is still very low.

Second, we build upon other studies to show that Latinos’ electoral behavior is likely to be shaped by a number of factors, not just the fate of immigration reform. As Matt Barreto and Gary Segura explain in detail in Latino America: How America’s Most Dynamic Population is Poised to Transform the Politics of the Nation, the latino vote has been influenced by several factors lately: immigration matters to (mostly first generation) immigrants but they also care about questions of equality, religion, security, economics, and candidates’ ties with the community. Thus, the overall impact of recent presidential actions on the entire Latino community may be limited. And it would be misleading to assume that Latinos might act as a captive constituency for any party.

Third, we note that electoral times often polarized political views on controversial issues. Over the years, Obama managed to maintain hope and positive expectations alive among Latinos, despite generalized disappointment with lack of effective changes. The Hispanic community took note of outreaching moves such as the appointment of high-rank officials of Hispanic descent, the push to the Dream Act, and presidential opposition to a very controversial immigration law in Arizona. It also took note of the latest bold initiatives above. According to a Gallup’s survey, immediately after the announcement of such measures Obama’s popularity among Hispanic-Americans increased by 12 points, rewarding him with a 64% of performance approval. Would it possible to maintain that rate of approval if the Executive cannot unlock institutional vetoes? This is an open question since the presidential decisions are facing opposition not only in Congress but also from federal courts (see details in the recent analysis of the Migration Policy Institute: http://migrationpolicy.org/article/all-eyes-us-federal-courts-deferred-action-programs-halted).

Fourth, from a historical perspective, we learned not to overestimate the president’s capacity to have an impact on the performance of its party, especially in the case of a president in his last term, without any chance to be re-elected. Bruce Caswell reminds us in “The Presidency, The Vote and The Formation of New Coalitions” (Polity 41, 2009) that only Ronald Reagan managed to pass the presidency along to his successor from his party and only for one term. He also points out that Obama increased evenly the support of Hispanics and other minorities in past elections but he did not bring new groups to the traditional electoral coalition of Democrats. Thus, the next presidential elections will be crucial to assess if Latinos (especially, the younger generation) have really become incorporated in the Democrats’ electoral coalition on more integrated and permanent basis than in the past.

Thus far, re-gaining initiative capacity and projecting a positive message focused on economic recovery as Obama did in his last speech to Congress in January 2015, attest of the president’s strategic shift and might increase the electoral chances of his party. It is not clear yet how presidential bold moves articulate with a broader economic and political dynamic and to what extent institutional vetoes may be overcome. For most migrants of Hispanic origin, the trip “to the North” is embedded in deeply-rooted expectations of a better standard of life and improvement for individuals, families, and communities. But the conditions that may allow them to “reclaim the American dream” –as Obama called it in his book The Audicity of Hope—are largely beyond the control of the president.

In sum, we note that forging a governing coalition that might advance a “Latin agenda” as well as other innovative policies is a crucial challenge today –and probably the most uncertain aspect of Obama’s departure. The imprint that Obama is giving to his last term will probably raise his profile and mark his legacy. It might also have just a short-term effect and limited scope if other political actors do not endorse or negotiate his initiatives within a broad political agreement supportive of structural changes.

Unsettling Patriarchy: Tackling the Gendered Injustices of Colonialism in Liberal Democracies

By Michael Elliott, Visiting Research Fellow in the Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance at the University of Southampton (Academia.edu).


Indigenous women stand amongst the most marginalised and vulnerable of groups within contemporary liberal democracies. This fact has been recognised for some time, but was affirmed again last week in a report published by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It highlighted the patterns of severe disadvantage, discrimination, and violence – including sexual violence and murder – to which Indigenous women in Canada are routinely exposed, and lamented the general lack of sufficient action being taken to address them. The same story could also be told of other advanced liberal democratic ‘settler’ states such as Australia, New Zealand, and USA.

In the wake of the CEDAW report, and as we find ourselves sandwiched neatly between International Women’s Day (8th March) and International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 21st), this seems as opportune a time as any to reflect upon this issue.

Gendered colonialism

The distinct form of oppression to which Indigenous women in settler societies are today subject is, by any standards, complex. Since the earliest days of European colonial presence in the so-called ‘New World’, through subsequent processes of settlement and state-building, and within the contemporary legislative and policy frameworks of liberal democratic governance, the positions of Indigenous women have come under particular and consistent attack.

To some extent, this must be understood in the context of wider racist and sexist cosmologies that have dominated (and in many ways dominate still) Western societies, and which have conspired to ensure a special disregard for Indigenous women. But there is also another side to this story that is rooted more in the realm of strategic reasons. Undermining the power and status of Indigenous women in a specific sense has formed a key part of attempts to weaken the social cohesiveness of Indigenous groups more generally, and with it their resistance to colonial processes and the advancement of state interests.

Accordingly, measures designed to diminish the power of Indigenous women within their communities (and outside of them), to separate them from important social and cultural networks, and to cut them out of the economy, have been a consistent feature of settler-colonialism. One need only witness the legacy of sexist provisions in the Indian Act in Canada for indication of this. Set in the broader context of colonial domination, these gendered attacks have carried dire repercussions.

Gender relations in many communities have been seriously distorted at the same time that social mechanisms for tackling abuse and discrimination have been dramatically eroded. In wider society, gendered oppression has been compounded by entrenched forms of racial discrimination. The result is that Indigenous women in settler-colonial contexts today find themselves negatively positioned in social relationships of all kinds – that is, in respect of Indigenous men as well as non-Indigenous men and women – and suffer a host of disadvantages and vulnerabilities as a result. In terms of socio-economic status, health, employment, housing, political representation, and in many other areas besides, serious disparities have emerged.

But if the factors underpinning such disadvantage are complex, then taking effective measures to address it is even more so. For, the fact is that colonial domination is not some distant aspect of history for most Indigenous groups in settler societies today. It is, rather, an active feature of daily life. The presence of external authority over Indigenous lands and populations has never been removed, and neither has the sense of injustice and threat that comes with it.

One consequence of this is that efforts to address patterns of female subordination can come into conflict with broader struggles against colonial domination. Where emancipatory movements around gender seem to draw on the resources of dominant society (both material and intellectual), and especially where they serve to cast doubt on the representative legitimacy of Indigenous governments and other organisations pressing for political change, there is real potential for friction with wider ‘decolonisation’ projects.

The result is that gender-based struggles often carry a certain controversy for many Indigenous communities, and have historically tended to become somewhat peripheralised as a result. This does not excuse, but has nevertheless abetted, a general lack of sufficient commitment amongst state actors to tackle such disadvantage – who, for better or worse, are currently best equipped in terms of resources and power to take decisive steps to promote change. The combined result is that disproportionate patterns of injustice and suffering borne by Indigenous women have persisted despite relatively wide acknowledgement.

How can progress be realised?

The very broad brushstrokes I have painted with here undoubtedly gloss over a great deal more complexity, controversy, and contextual nuance. Nevertheless, this rudimentary picture can at least provide traction for some initial thoughts on finding a more effective response to this issue.

And we might benefit here from separating two things: (1) the overall fact of oppression on the one hand; and (2) vulnerability to the most dire consequences of that oppression on the other. This is a precarious separation at best (both conceptually and practically speaking), but nevertheless can be of use in this case.

Taking the vulnerability question first: the CEDAW report emphasised that susceptibility to violence, poor health, and the worst effects of discrimination is exacerbated by the low socio-economic status of Indigenous women. Tackling this dimension of disadvantage must therefore represent an absolute priority.

In the current context, this can only be done with the full backing and support of the state. And whilst some notable steps have been taken in this regard by liberal governments in recent years, continuing patterns of violence and suffering attest to the need for a great deal more action. This will inevitably evoke significant antagonisms for groups struggling against the broader context of colonial domination. However, these might be reduced (to at least some extent) by resourcing Indigenous organisations to take the lead in the design and implementation of response programmes. The state could also take a responsible step here by refusing to appropriate such moves in efforts to consolidate its own position in ongoing disputes of colonial injustice.

However, tackling acute vulnerability is clearly only one part of the issue. And whilst such measures ought to carry broader positive repercussions in their own right, these will be limited if the background conditions of Indigenous women’s oppression are not simultaneously addressed.

This is by far the more difficult question, and one that lacks a clear or simple answer. Undoubtedly, though, without significant advancement in confronting the enduring fact of colonial domination – including the specific scenes of dispossession and disempowerment that currently characterise it – attempts to tackle its consequences are likely to fall desperately short. Gender-specific patterns of injustice certainly cannot simply be subsumed into this broader category of colonial injustice, but neither can they be treated in isolation from it. Achieving significant progress in respect of either inescapably requires addressing them together.

The kind of broad and unified commitment needed to make real moves in this direction presently seems (to put it generously) unlikely. But without it, it is difficult to see how the patterns noted in Canada in the CEDAW report – and felt equally acutely in other settler-colonial contexts – will improve significantly. As difficult as an open and committed confrontation with not only the past but also the ongoing injustices of colonial domination will be for settler societies (and the wider international community), it would seem to be essential if the suffering and rights abuses currently experienced by Indigenous women are to be properly addressed.

Scandal Scrutiny and the Political Theatre of Parliament

alixpicBy Dr. Alexandra Kelso, Associate Professor of British Politics at University of Southampton (@DrAlixKelso). You can read more posts by Alexandra Kelso here.


At a time when each week seems to bring fresh revelations about some new scandal – be it from the world of politics, finance, business, entertainment, or whatever – we hear a lot about how it has never been more important to ‘uncover the truth’ and ‘get to the bottom of things’, so that ‘it can never happen again.’ House of Commons select committees have found themselves to be uniquely positioned in this growth industry of scandal scrutiny, and by exploiting this positioning they’ve succeeded in raising the profile of parliament as an important arena for political action. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has long been at the forefront of parliamentary scrutiny, and has recently assumed even greater political saliency as a result of the strategic leadership of its chair, the Labour MP Margaret Hodge. PAC’s recent investigations into tax avoidance and evasion, and in particular Hodge’s grilling of senior HSBC figures, has drawn the criticism that Hodge is ‘abusive and bullying’ and presiding over ‘a theatrical exercise in public humiliation.’ These comments are interesting for a number of reasons.

First, the notion that committee scrutiny is a ‘theatrical exercise’ is in fact hugely revealing of the institutional setting. Parliament is the nation’s pre-eminent ‘theatre of action’[i]. It’s the stage on which political actors enact a range of vital performances, from which they take cues from off-stage participants, and through which they signal important political messages to watching audiences. Describing parliamentary politics as ‘theatrical’ isn’t therefore particularly contemptuous, and the metaphor is incredibly useful in helping us to understand the behaviour and activity of MPs inside parliament.

This leads directly to the second point, which is that in pursuing this burgeoning market in scandal scrutiny, select committees would be negligent if they didn’t use all the resources at their disposal, including the ability to embarrass witnesses. For the most part, the only public scrutiny many of these witnesses will ever be exposed to is that visited upon them by parliamentary committees. Irrespective of what happens to those individuals or their institutions thereafter, it is fundamental to the operation of democracy that significant figures are at least seen to be challenged and questioned. Whether such challenging and questioning is the same as holding them to account is of course another matter. But the very public and highly visible process of scrutiny that is possible through parliamentary committees is a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for ensuring the democratic health of our political system. The oxygen of publicity is, after all, a highly effective disinfectant. Parliamentary committees may not be in a position to resolve any of the scandals they investigate, but they are increasingly crucial agenda-setting actors, and their scrutiny actions can and do help determine how long an issue will remain on the media’s radar. What’s more, when committee members ask hard questions, and appear incredulous when witnesses answer those questions, they are merely channelling the behaviours expected of them by their similarly incredulous constituents.

Which leads to the final point: the role of the committee chair is of fundamental importance in understanding what action a committee will take on any given issue, which is why Margaret Hodge at PAC has drawn both criticism and applause. Leadership matters in select committees, and the chair is crucial in setting the tone of investigations and determining the vigour with which summoned witnesses are questioned. Hodge’s behaviour in the PAC chair has been described as ‘grandstanding’, but labelling an active and relentless chair in this way entirely misconceives the emerging strategic role of chairs and their increased willingness to exploit the parliamentary resources at their disposal, resources which would not otherwise be available to them as backbench MPs. The whole point of shifting in 2010 to a system of elected select committee chairs was to beef up the scrutiny capacity of the Commons and imbue chairs with greater authority and legitimacy to act. To then describe chairs as ‘grandstanding’ when they put those institutional resources to use is disingenuous.

So long as scandals continue to be uncovered, parliamentary committees will continue to position themselves on the political stage as wily inquisitors working on behalf of the exploited and the victimised, and active chairs will vigorously pursue witnesses so long as there is a political market for doing so. Ultimately, the very best actors will always learn how to maximise their use of the stage on which they perform so as to throw their voices to the darkest corners of the theatre. This truth is what makes the study of parliament and its committees so compelling.

The author acknowledges the support of ESRC research funding (RES-061-25-0391).

[i] Uhr, J. and J. Wanna, 2000, ‘The future roles of parliament’ in M. Keating, J. Wanna, and P. Weller (eds.) Institutions on the Edge? Capacity for Governance, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

 

Polling Observatory analysis cited in OfCom’s statement on party election broadcasts

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). The homepage of The Polling Observatory can be found here, and you can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


Regular readers of the blog might be interested to know that our Polling Observatory analysis of support for the parties (a joint venture between the Universities of Southampton and Manchester, Simon Fraser University and the University of Texas at Austin) featured today in OfCom’s statement on party election broadcasts. You can read the full OfCom report, ‘Review of Ofcom list of major political parties for elections taking place on 7 May 2015’, here.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Polling Observatory #45: Parties neck-and-neck as we approach the formal campaign

DipticBy The Polling Observatory (Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien). The homepage of The Polling Observatory can be found here, and you can read more posts by The Polling Observatory here.


This is the forty-fifth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

UK 01-03-15 anchor on average

As we approach the electoral business-end of this parliament, the party machines are gearing up for the campaign proper – with a lot of nervous watching of the polls for signs of a sea change in opinion. Are the public steady in their voting intentions, or are they starting to move as polling day nears? Our latest report tracks the polls up to March 1st, so just before the eruption of ‘debate-gate’ arguments about the Prime Minister’s reluctance to appear in televised debates, and before the most recent run of polls that look potentially more favourable for the Conservatives, though as ever we reserve judgement until the underlying trend is clear.

Our evidence suggests that the parties remain neck-and-neck, with Labour support at 32.2% the same as last month, and the same as our estimate at the start of December too. The most recent erosion in Labour’s lead, which has now all but disappeared, has not been due to a decline in Labour support, as was true for most of last year, but instead due to  a slight improvement in Conservative fortunes. The Tories have gained 0.3 points this month, rising to 31.5%, one of their best performances in the past year or two. However, despite recent gains, we still have them in the 30 to 32% rut that they have been in since the infamous “omnishambles” budget in 2012. If the more recent uptick in support seen in March’s polling to date is sustained, the Conservatives might break out of the rut just as the election finish line approaches. This remains to be seen.

UKIP have fallen back again, down 0.7 points to 14.8%, their lowest share since September. While not quite at the peak they achieved in the autumn, possibly due to reduced attention over the past month, Farage’s radical right outsiders have become part of the political landscape and continue to attract enough support to threaten to wreak havoc in May. The Liberal Democrats have made a slight gain, rising 0.4 points to 8.4%, but still look destined for severe electoral pain. One much-caveated forecast based on data from the British Election Study suggesting they could win just one seat. Their fate in Parliament continues to hang on the ability of their MPs to generate ‘personal votes’ sufficient to swim against the tide of national unpopularity.

Finally, the Green surge appears to have levelled off for now. We have the party up  just 0.1 point past this month, to 6.4%. This is a new record, and puts support for the party just below the Lib Dems, but  the questions remain how ‘soft’ much of the Green vote is as Election Day approaches, and how effective the Greens will be in channelling rising national popularity into successful local campaigns.

Based on these current estimates of support for the parties, our vote forecast points towards a result in May that is too close to call. We put both Labour and the Tories on 33.7% but with a wide range of uncertainty.  Our forecast indicates that Labour support could fall within the 30.1% to 37.2% range and Conservative support in a slightly narrower range — between 31.9% and 34.4%. In short, history suggests there is still time for either Labour or the Conservatives to pull ahead, though neither has a clear advantage right now. The Liberal Democrat forecast continues to edge downwards as the long hoped for recovery in support continues to elude them. It now stands at 8.8%, which would be just over a third of the vote that they won in May 2010.

Vote Forecast 01-03-15

As the four party politics of 2014 has given rise to five or six party politics, and as UKIP and the SNP appear to have become part of the electoral landscape that has proved resilient, the Polling Observatory team has produced its first set of forecasts at the constituency level. On Friday, 13 March, 2015, we will release these seat level forecasts, along with an explanation of how our model of constituency simulations works, and  estimates of each party’s chances in every seat.

Robert FordWill JenningsMark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien

Fully-Funded PhD Scholarship, “Fairness, Common Heritage and the International Seabed Authority”

The Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute (SMMI) at the University of Southampton has been awarded a major grant to host a new Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholarship programme, ‘Understanding Maritime Futures: Opportunities, Challenges and Threats’, which will support at least 15 PhD students.

This particular scholarship will investigate how, from the point of view of justice, any funds from the exploitation of seabed resources should be shared. Though in the first instance a project in normative political theory, it would suit an individual willing to pursue a project bridging political theory, philosophy and law, and to develop some familiarity with the geology of seabed resources. The successful applicant would be supervised by a team led by Professor Chris Armstrong, but spanning Politics and International Relations, Philosophy and Law, with additional assistance from an expert in marine geology.

The Doctoral programme as a whole encourages applicants willing to:

  • employ a transdisciplinary approach to tackle an important societal challenge
  • develop ideas which might inform national and international decision makers from government, business and civil society
  • challenge public understanding and/or capture the public imagination.

The studentship will cover tuition fees for UK/EU applicants and provide a maintenance grant at a rate comparable with other UK Research Council studentships. The funding associated with this project is only available for EU/UK students.

Start date: September 2015

For informal advice, contact Professor Chris Armstrong, Politics and International Relations (ca@soton.ac.uk).

How to apply:

Candidates should apply using the standard online application form here: http://www.southampton.ac.uk/socsci/postgraduate/research_degrees/apply.page?

You must make clear in your application that you wish to be considered for the SMMI scholarship, supervised by Professor Chris Armstrong in Politics and International Relations. Applications must be received by 30th March 2015.

Candidates will be shortlisted based on academic excellence and aptitude for inter-disciplinary research. Shortlisted candidates will be interviewed, and will be asked to provide, in advance of interviews, a ~1500 word response to either of these questions:

  • “What key principles should be considered for the future use of seabed mineral resources in the deep ocean?”
  • “What policy developments are required to make the oceans and seas ‘an enabling environment for development for the benefit of all’ (United Nations Development Strategy Beyond 2015)?”

Debate: Do Citizens Have a Moral Duty to Vote?

By Ben Saunders and Jeffrey Howard. Ben Saunders is Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@DrBenSaunders, Academia.edu). Jeffrey Howard is Lecturer in Political Philosophy at Essex University. You can read more posts by Ben Saunders here.


As the general election of 2015 approaches, members of the general public are once again called on to cast their votes and decide who will represent their interests in the next government of the United Kingdom. But do the citizens of democratic states have a moral duty to answer this call?

Public figures like Russell Brand and Tim Stevens, Bishop of Leicester, have weighed in on the debate. Now, The Conversation has asked two professors of political philosophy to set out their arguments for and against.

Jeffrey Howard – affirmative

“The history of the world has given to us many sublime undertakings,” proclaimed Frederick Douglass in his 1888 speech on the struggle for universal suffrage, “but none more sublime than this.” Today, few would doubt that the fight for universal democratic empowerment was among the most morally significant struggles in history. But what, exactly, was it a fight for?

“The right to vote” seems to be the answer: but it is a misleading one. My suggestion is that those who struggled for suffrage during the past two centuries were not simply fighting for the option to vote. They were fighting for something deeper: the job of the citizen. They were fighting for a seat at the table at which the great moral challenges of their nation are debated and decided.

The job of the citizen, I believe, places moral demands on those who hold it. Voting is one of those demands. Citizens have obligations to make their societies more just and, as others have argued, to refrain from being an accomplice – however minor – to injustice.

Voting in favour of just proposals, or in support of representatives who enact them, discharges both duties in one fell swoop. By voting, we join together with like-minded citizens to collectively nudge our nation in a morally better direction. And even if we are unsuccessful – even if the forces of injustice win out – our action disassociates us from complicity with that injustice. Voting frees us of the blame that rightly attaches to citizens who vote for evil or who sit silently as others do so.

Ben Saunders – negative

Jeff Howard’s vision of citizens striving to make their societies more just may be an ideal that we should aspire to, but is it really a duty incumbent on us all? I think not.

First, note that the duty envisaged is not simply a duty to vote, but to vote for just policies (or representatives who will enact them). This is more demanding, since it implies that many voters act wrongly.

Granting, for now, that there is such a duty, it is misleading to say that citizens have a duty to vote as such. Obviously, one can only vote rightly if one votes, but there is no distinct duty to vote. Those who vote for unjust policies are no better – and presumably worse -– than those who do not vote, and surely cannot escape blame for collective wrongdoing.

Indeed, it is not clear that those who vote rightly avoid complicity. We ordinarily expect those who take part in a democratic process to accept the legitimacy of the outcome, even if outvoted. Perhaps, therefore, it is better not to vote if the decision will be unjust.

Where there is serious prospect of grave injustice, citizens promote justice through other actions, such as protesting. Voting alone does little to achieve this.

Could civilian movements like the poll tax protest be a better way of fighting for justice?
Chris Bacon/PA

Jeffrey Howard

Ben Saunders has issued a powerful, three-pronged challenge to the thesis that citizens are morally required to vote.

First, he notes that it is implausible to think that all votes are morally meritorious. Votes for unjust policies should be condemned, not celebrated. He is right: the duty to vote must be a duty to vote well. And to do that, it is not enough simply to show up on election day and flip a coin. Voting is rightly preceded by thoughtful reflection on matters of public concern. If citizens have not done so, then they should not vote, just as a surgeon who has not researched a particular surgery should not perform it. The duty to vote, then, functions within a package of other related responsibilities.

Secondly, Ben suggests that those who vote for justice but lose may still be complicit with injustice, since their vote legitimises the process and could even obligate them to obey it. This is an important worry, but I have doubts. It cannot be true that those who go to the polls to register their fierce opposition to slavery are bound to support slavery if their opponents win the day.

Finally, Ben suggests that if achieving justice is our objective, voting may be an ineffective method, compared to other alternatives. No doubt this is sometimes so, but I believe voting retains a distinctive significance. Protests are useful, I suggest, precisely because they can alter people’s intentions about what policies and politicians they will vote for. Protests can move people to head toward a particular door, but only through voting can they unlock it.

Ben Saunders

Jeff suggests that voting can unlock the door to a more just society, but this is rather unusual. If a slave-owning society were having a referendum on the abolition of slavery, then all citizens may have an obligation to vote for its abolition (though my earlier point, that this is not a duty to vote as such, still stands). That some citizens are sometimes under an obligation to vote, however, is relatively trivial – one could easily demonstrate this simply by promising to vote.

My concern is whether citizens generally have a moral duty to vote, simply in virtue of being citizens. I do not think Jeff’s arguments give us sufficient reason to think that they do. Even if all citizens are under a duty to promote a just society, voting would only be one way to further that end, and not a particularly effective one at that.

We rarely face a situation like the slavery referendum, where there is a clear choice between justice and injustice. Ordinarily, citizens must choose between parties whose policies, taken as a package, may differ little from the viewpoint of justice. In such circumstances, citizens may better promote justice in other ways, such as by volunteering for charity.


This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.