Most of the arguments in favor of moral compulsory voting see it as a general obligation to be a citizen. At least as a rule, they believe that citizens have a moral obligation to vote – regardless of how great the difference is between the opposing candidates and which candidate the voter in question prefers. I have criticized such claims in previous writings, most recently here.
However, there is another limited justification for compulsory voting in at least some elections. It’s the idea that in cases where the stakes are particularly high, we have a mandatory vote. Perhaps there is no voting requirement if there are little differences between opposing candidates or if the differences between them do not have a major impact. But things are different when one side is far better than the other. This intuition underlies the oft-heard feeling that “it is the most important choice in our life” and other similar claims must be made to choose. And as the polarization increases, we hear such claims more often.
The claim that if the stakes are high enough you have to vote has a core of truth. However, the resulting moral duty holds true far less often than those in favor of the argument assume. And the same reasoning actually implies that many people have a moral duty not to vote.
Let’s start with the core of the truth. Imagine there is an election for a powerful political office where Gandalf (the benevolent wizard in JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) competes against Sauron, the despotic dark lord from the same story. If Sauron wins, millions of people will die or become enslaved, while Gandalf would rightly rule if he manages to win. And all you have to do to ensure Gandalf’s victory is check his name on a ballot. If you do this, Gandalf wins; if not, Sauron will.
In this scenario, it would appear that you have a moral duty to vote for Gandalf, at least barring exceptional circumstances. In real elections, of course, the likelihood that your vote will make a difference is far less than in this stylized example. They average around 1 in 60 million in an American presidential election, but higher in swing states.
However, a sufficiently large difference between the two candidates could potentially justify an obligation to choose the “right” candidate, even if the chances of casting a decisive ballot are very slim. For example, let’s say you live in a swing state and have a 1 in 1 million chance of casting a casting vote for Gandalf over Sauron. However, if your voice turns out to be crucial, you will save 1 million people from death and 10 million from enslavement. Some simple calculations lead to the conclusion that the expected value of your vote (the benefit of Gandalf’s victory divided by the likelihood of an influence) is a life saved and ten people saved from slavery.
Again, you may be required to vote. At the very least, there may be at least some scenarios in which you are required to vote, even if the likelihood of a critical impact is relatively small.
Note, however, that the duty in question is not an obligation to participate in the process for its own sake. It is a duty to help the good triumph over evil when you can do it at little or no cost. In this scenario, if you have a moral duty to vote for Gandalf, you also have a moral duty not to vote for Sauron. Indeed, the person who votes for Sauron is more condemnable than the person who merely abstains. The former actively helps evil to win, while the latter “just” decides not to stop it.
While Gandalf followers may have a compulsory vote, Sauron followers actually have a duty to abstain. Ideally, they should stop supporting Sauron. But at least they shouldn’t take any measures that increase the likelihood of his victory.
All of the above analyzes assume that the voter knows which candidate is superior to what extent. In reality, however, we have widespread political ignorance, and most voters often do not even know basic facts about how government and politics work. Most are also very biased in their assessment of the information they know and act more like “political fans” cheering on Team Red or Team Blue than as truth seekers.
There is a lot that people can do to become better voters. However, most will not, as such measures require a lot of time and energy and can be psychologically painful. Unless a voter is well informed about the issues and is at least somewhat objective in his assessment of political information, he has good reason to question his judgment about which candidate is superior, let alone by how much. It cannot therefore conclude that it has a voting obligation to help the “right” side win. Instead, it may have an alleged obligation to abstain from voting until it reaches at least a minimal threshold of political knowledge.
Perhaps the relatively ignorant and prejudiced voter might conclude that they should still vote because they are at least less ignorant and prejudiced than the average. A vote would thus slightly improve the average quality of the electorate and possibly slightly increase the chances of winning the right candidate. That could be true. Note, however, that figuring out if you are better informed than the average voter himself takes time and effort, and a certain amount of pre-existing knowledge. It also requires resisting the psychological temptation to believe that one must be better than average. Any compulsory voting under such circumstances would at best be greatly weakened.
Many people will oppose this conclusion on the grounds that figuring out which side is the “right” one is actually easy because there is so much space between opposite sides. All you have to do is open your eyes!
I myself think that there is a significant gap between Biden and Trump and that the former is the lesser evil here. It may not be quite as straightforward as Gandalf versus Sauron; but it is perhaps roughly analogous to Sauron versus Cersei Lannister – not good versus evil, but a great evil versus a much smaller one.
But if the difference between the two sides was really so obvious that almost anyone could easily figure it out, then there would be no need to worry about the election result! Those who are not otherwise inclined to choose can simply leave the decision to the part of the population that actually likes to vote. You can be sure that this one will easily find out that Gandalf (or even Cersei) is preferable to Sauron.
On the other hand, if it looks like Sauron has the support of 40% or more of the population, and therefore has about a 10% chance of winning, it suggests that realizing its relative evil is a more difficult task than realizing it first maybe do suppose. And when the task is this difficult, your own judgment about Sauron can also be flawed unless you are relatively knowledgeable and unbiased.
Even if you have good reason to be sure of your judgment about the candidates, and you are right to believe that one is vastly superior to the other, you may not have compulsory voting if it is unusually costly (e.g. casting) A ballot would distract you from a very important task. You might also be “excused” if you have already contributed to the public interest in other ways, as the philosopher Jason Brennan argues in his excellent book The Ethics of Voting. But at least there could be a presumed compulsory voting.
You may also have a duty to become an informed and unbiased voter. However, this takes a lot of time and effort and can be especially difficult in a world where government policy spans so many subjects that it takes extensive knowledge to understand more than a small part of it. It is difficult to justify our duty to devote so much time to politics. It is certainly far from the initial intuitive scenario where you have to help Gandalf defeat Sauron because all you have to do is tick the correct box on a voting slip.
In summary, voting may be required if 1) there is a huge difference between the two sides, 2) your vote has a significant chance of being decisive, and 3) you have good reason to think you are right which candidate is the best (or at least to conclude that your reasoning is better than that of the average voter). In this world you also have a duty not to vote for the “bad” candidate. If you have a tendency to do the latter, it is better to abstain than to vote.
However, these circumstances apply to a relatively small part of the voting decisions. In most elections, the differences between candidates are not that great, there is more uncertainty as to which is better, and a high percentage of potential voters have good reason to doubt the quality of their judgment.
The lack of moral compulsory voting in a given election does not necessarily mean that you should abstain. Unless you have a moral duty not to vote (as in the Sauron supporter case discussed above), you can vote or vote without fear of conviction. In my view, if you decide to vote, you have at least a supposed obligation to be relatively informed. But that is different from compulsory voting as such.
Neither compulsory voting (where it exists) nor the obligation to abstain (where it exists) should be enforced by the government. I oppose compulsory voting and am also skeptical that the government can be trusted to identify who is likely to be a good voter and who is not, beyond some very minimal standards. These are moral obligations that individual voters should voluntarily fulfill, even though we know many may not.
If this state of affairs seems unsatisfactory, I would suggest that it reinforce the case for systemic reform to reduce our confidence in the knowledge and insight of voters, who often have strong incentives to be ignorant and biased in their judgments. I discuss possible options in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance and here. In my recent work on how we can empower people to have more control over the policies they live under by giving them the opportunity to “vote with their feet”.
In the meantime, we should take seriously the possibility that sometimes there is an elective to defeat a (big enough) evil. But we should also recognize the limits of such claims.
UPDATE: In this 2014 post I criticized the oft-heard claim that “if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain”.