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.

Alternatives to Fixed-Term Elections

By Ben Saunders, Senior Lecturer in Political Philosophy at University of Southampton (@DrBenSaunders, Academia.edu).


Until the present coalition government introduced the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, in 2011, the UK Prime Minister had discretion to call elections at will, a power often used for partisan advantage. As Petra Schleiter reports in her post on OpenDemocracy, 60% of the UK’s post-war elections were called early (i.e. more than six months before required). Further, her analysis suggests that this gave incumbents a 6% vote gain, roughly doubling the PM’s chances of remaining in office.

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act allows early elections to be called only in very restricted circumstances (either with support of two-thirds of the House of Commons or following a vote of no confidence after which no alternative government is approved by the Commons within 14 days). Schleiter points to a number of advantages of this; not only does it stop PMs from calling elections opportunistically, in order to increase their chances of victory, but depriving them of this power also prevents them from using the threat of an election to bully backbench MPs or coalition partners, thereby making the government more accountable to parliament.

However, in focusing on the advantages of fixed-term elections, Schleiter does not consider whether there are certain advantages to the old system, in which an election could be called at any moment. Alan Hamlin has previously argued that fixed-term elections will not eliminate a bias in favour of the incumbent. Though governments will not be able to call an election at a moment that happens to be favourable to them, they will be able to pursue policies designed to produce favourable circumstances at the time an election is scheduled to take place.

Further, Hamlin argues that the constant threat of a surprise election requires opposition parties to maintain a certain level of campaign-readiness and to be active in holding the government to account. Where is it known that there will not be another election for 4-5 years, opposition parties may have little incentive to provide opposition to the government, being focused on their long-term electoral strategy. Knowing that there may be an election at any time, however, forces these parties to hold the government to account. Thus, while the PM’s prerogative to call elections at will may give them greater control over their own party, this same arrangement may result in more effective opposition.

Though one stated aim of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was to reduce instability and short-termism, unpredictability does have some benefits, preventing both incumbents and opposition parties from attempting to ‘game’ the electoral cycle. While giving power to call elections to the PM is undesirable, since it will predictably be used for partisan advantage, fixed-term parliaments are not the only alternative. One possibility would be to return the power to dissolve parliaments to the monarch, who is supposedly impartial, but this would doubtless be undesirable too. Indeed, giving anyone the power to call elections will raise the possibility of favouritism or corruption, since no one can be guaranteed to be impartial.

There are, however, alternative arrangements that do not rely on giving any individual the power to call an election. Hamlin also touches on the possibility of random election cycles. There are various ways that such an idea might be implemented. One would be for a random period of time to be set after (or just before) each election, so it was known when the next election would be. This would, in effect, amount to a fixed-term, albeit that the length of term might vary from one government to the next. There seems little advantage to this.

Another possibility, however, would be to have a random device to determine whether an election should occur at a given moment in time. For instance, at the start of each year we might generate a number from one to ten and, if it is a one then an election must be held that year. There would, of course, be a chance (10% given these figures) that some governments could last little more than a year. There is also a chance that some may last a significant period of time; the chance of five random draws, without a one occurring, is almost 60%. The exact numbers, however, are not my concern here, but rather the principle, that we can avoid discretionary power without adopting fixed-term parliaments.

This is not necessarily to say that fixed-term parliaments are a bad thing. Perhaps, after due reflection, we may think it is good to allow parties – both in government and opposition – chance to step-down from constant election readiness and to implement (or devise) policy programmes. If so, then we may favour fixed-term parliaments because they allow for predictability and long-term planning, but these reasons are distinct from objections to the partisan effects of PM discretion. But if, like Hamlin, we value unpredictability as a means to ensure government accountability, and our only objection is to giving the PM power to call elections, then we may favour random elections rather than fixed terms. Thus, we need to decide whether predictable electoral cycles are a good thing or not, independently of any objections to PM’s discretion.

Should Democrats Focus Their Midterm Election Campaigns on Raising the Minimum Wage?

By Joseph Owen, MA student of 20th and 21st Century Literature at University of Southampton (personal blog).


Democrats are expecting to incur significant losses in the November midterm elections. Factors for this include: the historically poor electoral performance of incumbents, low midterm turnouts of the Democrat base support and the perceived failures of the Obama administration. To invigorate support come election time – from both the traditional base and floating voters – the Democrats need to manufacture and sustain a narrative that will benefit them electorally. Obamacare, which has become a toxic brand for Democrats and an electoral gift for Republicans, is likely to be eschewed by the former for a more positive message. Seemingly, the Democrats’ preference is to make a rise in the minimum wage a fundamental midterm issue.

The legislative proposal, increasing the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour, is the subject of broad cross-voter appeal. The wage rise has already been implemented for federal contractors by an executive order from Obama. Expanding it nationwide will need the approval of Congress. With the House of Representatives in Republican control it is politically improbable that such an approval will occur before the midterms. Democrats know this. The reason they are proposing such a bill is to bring the notion of pay into public debate as they appreciate it is an area in which they hold popular leverage over the Republicans. In principle, this tactic makes sense. However, there are some pitfalls and impracticalities to contend with.

Firstly: job creation. Many US citizens are worried about the economy. They are concerned with pay but they are also concerned with employment opportunities. Republicans will focus on the argument which suggests that a minimum wage rise will be at the expense of jobs. Democrats must be careful not to let the GOP frame the debate. Secondly: campaign funding. Tom Steyer, a potentially huge donor for the Democrats, wants climate change at the top of the agenda in return for the money he is willing to commit. Balancing several key narratives may prove fraught with difficulty and, counter intuitively, act to disenfranchise voters. Appeasing both the wants of donors and the electorate must be handled intelligently. These are important caveats but they are not necessarily fatal. The Democrats are up against it this coming November, and pay increase seems to be the fertile ground which they could utilise. There are few other avenues so they can afford little else.

Explaining Voting Turnout in Latin America

By Nestor Castaneda-Angarita, University of Southampton @nccastaneda and Miguel Carreras, University of California – Riverside – @carreras_miguel

After thirty years of uninterrupted democratic rule in most Latin American countries, we still know very little about the factors that affect individuals’ propensity to vote. Democratic theorists have repeatedly argued that political participation has a positive influence on citizens because it leads to enlightened choices in the political arena and increased civic-mindedness. Politically active persons are likely to be more developed — intellectually, practically, and morally — than politically passive. Previous studies have demonstrated that a series of institutional and contextual factors have a positive impact on turnout (Fornos, Power, Garand, 2004; Pérez-Liñán, 2001). Those studies argue that electoral participation increases when registration procedures are efficient, when voting is compulsory and sanctions for abstaining are enforced, and when legislative and presidential elections are held concurrently. Conventional wisdom also holds that socioeconomic factors are not related with turnout in the region. The studies of turnout at the subnational level have found inconsistent evidence for the impact of variables such as literacy, wealth, and population age on electoral participation. These null and inconsistent findings may be related to the ecological problems that result from analyzing aggregate levels of turnout.

In a recently published paper (Who Votes in Latin America? A Test of Three Theoretical Perspectives, Comparative Political Studies, July 2014, Volume 47, No. 8, pp.1079-1104), we re-assess the link between socio-demographic characteristics and turnout at the individual level with recent survey data from the Americas Barometer 2010 for 30,075 respondents in 17 Latin American countries. We found out that the strongest predictors of voter turnout in all of our models are two individual resources (education and age — proxy for political experience). Our analysis reveals that these objective characteristics of the voters explain much more than their subjective motivations (trust in elections, political efficacy, and interest in politics) and their insertion in mobilization networks.

The importance of voter’s resources to explain turnout in Latin America contrasts with the little influence that variables such as income or education have on electoral participation in developed countries. Particularly, education is a very poor predictor of electoral participation in many industrialized countries.

Why are citizens with a low socio-economic status (i.e. destitute and poorly educated individuals) less likely to go to the polls in Latin America but not in most industrialized countries? We believe there are three main reasons that explain this pattern.

First, the gap between those that have a low level of education and those that have a high level of education is more remarkable in Latin America than in most industrialized countries. Since most citizens in developed countries crossed this minimum threshold of instruction (the vast majority of citizens at least completed primary school), it makes sense that the effect of education on electoral participation is less remarkable.

Second, the size of the informal sector in the economy is much bigger in Latin American countries than in developed countries. Unskilled individuals in Latin America are much more likely to work in the informal economy than their counterparts in industrialized countries. People working in the informal sector are less likely to be immersed in active social networks. As our own analysis reveals, citizens with low social capital are less likely to participate in the elections. Hence, the likelihood that poor and uneducated individuals will turn out is lower in Latin American countries than in the developed countries.

Finally, the literature suggests that voters’ resources will matter less when leftist parties or labor movements are able to mobilize lower status individuals. Latin American countries have lacked precisely the type of labor parties that were created in Europe in the twentieth century to mobilize the working-class electorate. Latin American party systems have traditionally been dominated by “parties of a multi-class appeal and ideological pragmatism.” These catch-all parties do not develop programmatic linkages with voters along existing lines of societal cleavages, and are less effective at mobilizing individuals with low socio-economic status. Moreover, the neoliberal turn in the 1990s has considerably weakened labor movements in the region, thereby eroding a potential mobilization arena that could encourage disadvantaged social groups to go to the polls. In sum, a series of structural factors help explain the divergent impact of voters’ resources on electoral participation across different regions.

The conventional wisdom regarding turnout in Latin America is that institutions matter much more than socio-economic factors. We demonstrate that the strongest predictors of turnout in the region (education, age, employment status) are all socio-economic variables. Income also matters but its impact is not linear. Our analysis reveals that individuals in situation of extreme poverty are less likely to vote than the rest of the population.