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.

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.

Polling Observatory #26: Politics becalmed as summer approaches

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Cross-posted at NottsPolitics.org

This is part of 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.

As the political hurricane of the May local elections has quickly become a distant memory, with hostilities easing as parliament heads towards its summer recess, support for the parties has seen a slight unwinding of some recent developments. In the last month the media, and the public, appear to have lost interest in Nigel Farage and his party, with support for UKIP having fallen to 12.8% (down almost two percentage points on our estimate last month). This is the first time UKIP support has seen a monthly drop for several months – suggesting its challenge to the main parties has eased temporarily at least. The Conservatives, in contrast, have seen their political fortunes improve slightly, with their support rebounding to 30.0%, up almost two percentage points on last month. This figure still puts them far down on their standing in the polls at the start of 2012, and there is clearly a long way to go before they have any chance of forming the next government. Their coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats, have edged up slightly in the polls to 8.3%, though their support has seen little meaningful movement since the end of 2010, which does not portend well for their hopes at the next general election.

Despite persistent talk of Labour’s struggle to gain traction in making the political weather and convincing the public that it offers a credible alternative to the current government, it retains a healthy lead over the Conservatives of almost eight percentage points, with its support standing at 37.6%.

This currently becalmed state of British politics arguably reflects the high degree of uncertainty about the country’s future, combined with wider public disillusionment about politics. Talk of economic ‘green shoots’ is clearly premature, although there are some signs that the worst may be over and voters may be starting to get the feel-good factor back. There is much potential for the political weather to change again, with the upcoming Scottish Referendum and continued debate over an EU referendum leaving much uncertainty over where the UK will stand in May 2015, when the parties are next due to face the electorate. Just to what extent austerity will change the British economy and politics is unclear. What is unquestionable, however, is that citizens have become deeply disenchanted with politics and mainstream parties. In a recent YouGov poll for the Centre for Citizenship, Globalization and Governance at the University of Southamptona remarkable 80% of the public agreed with the statement that “politicians are too focused on short-term chasing of headlines”, while 72% agreed with the suggestion that politics “is dominated by self-seeking politicians protecting the interests of the already rich and powerful in our society”. Interestingly, older voters were even more negative about the capabilities and intentions of politicians. It is no wonder, then, that all the parties are struggling to convince anything close to a majority of the public that they have the capability and strength of character to make a difference.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup