A letter-writer today reproached Peter Wehner, the NY Times’ occasional Republican op-ed columnist, for saying that, while he could never vote for Donald Trump for president, neither could he stand to vote for Hillary Clinton. So, faced with that choice, Wehner would not vote. According to the letter writer, Eric Hausker, Wehner should be ashamed of himself: it is our democratic duty to vote, and therefore if necessary to choose the lesser of two evils. “Blood was shed to secure this solemn obligation.”*
Hausker reflects a view that seems to be very common in the United States, but I think it is misguided. There is no civic obligation to vote. In certain situations, not voting is a perfectly legitimate and indeed the most defensible course of action.
Before explaining why, let me make clear that I strongly believe in and encourage citizens’ active political participation. Our politics would serve us better if more people were actively engaged in trying to understand public policy and working to support the organizations and candidates who best reflect their interests. Voting is the most common form of political participation, but among the most passive. You can also write your local congressman, give money to candidates, and work in campaigns. As an individual, you are more likely to have an impact on an election by making telephone calls for your candidate than by merely casting your lone vote. And, if you have enough money, your financial contribution is certainly more consequential than your vote. But no one would suggest that campaign work or dollar contributions for your favored candidates is a civic duty.
There are two good reasons for deliberately not casting a vote: one–Wehner’s–I’ll call “principled abstention.” The other is “abstention by default.”
Take Wehner’s case. If he has followed the issues and candidates’ positions and records and made a considered judgment, then he has already performed admirably as a citizen. If he is indeed presented with two unacceptable candidates this fall, it is fair to say that the system has somehow failed him. Why should he feel obliged to cast an unpalatable vote, in effect paying fealty to a system that, from his point of view, has failed? His abstention is thoughtful and meaningful.
Abstention by default is probably much more common than principled abstention. It has sometimes happened, especially in local referenda and primary elections, that I just haven’t been paying attention: I don’t know the issues and/or candidates and I don’t know how I would want to vote. You can certainly scold that I should have been paying attention, and I won’t argue back, but election day is here and I’m still in the dark. I have two courses of action. I can simply stay home. Or, I can pick some completely arbitrary method of making a voting decision, like tossing a coin, and then follow up in the voting booth. The more reasonable and responsible course of action, in my view, is the first: abstention by default. It would have been desirable for me to have been paying attention from the beginning, but given that I haven’t been, there is nothing commendable about casting a mindless vote.
So, I would advise my Republican friends (in truth, I don’t have many): feel free to abstain if you are faced with what you regard as a brutally unpleasant choice this November. There is no solemn duty to vote.
*Actually, the franchise was quite restricted at the time of the American revolution.