When the results of this year’s Iowa caucus initially came in, my first thought was that the worst of both sides had won. My second thought was that if the two main contenders in November are Obama and Huckabee, then most likely I will either vote Libertarian or just not vote. My third thought was to wonder what the "Get out the vote!" people would think of that.
It has always been odd to me that many people see voting as more of a duty than a right. Surely it is not rational to revere the freedom to vote on the premise that the taller the stack of completed ballots, the greater the inherent good of the situation. Rather, the liberty to vote is sacred because it ranks among the most essential means to a sacred end: political liberty in general. The way in which this works is simple: every individual citizen of age has the right to affect the outcome of an election by one vote. If that individual would prefer to affect the outcome of an election by withholding that one vote instead of by giving it to this or that candidate, then that is his prerogative, and there should be no moral imperative to cast the vote anyhow.
What if a voter dislikes all of the candidates in an election, and is not interested in voting for any of them? Are we to look down upon him for refraining from giving his vote to a politician that he dislikes? What about the person who finds that he has better things to do than vote; the person who would prefer to spend his time working, or playing with his children, or sitting at home reading a book, because he is not terribly animated about an election for one reason or another? Some people see a person who does not care about the fate of his country. All else being equal, I see an individual who is content to mind his own business, and who might reasonably wish that everyone else would return the favor. Besides which, the people who are so anxious about the fate of the country can cast their own votes.
It comes down to the fact that the institution of voting, and all of its political implications, exist to serve the individual citizen, not vice versa. Just as with freedom of speech and the right to bear arms, the right to vote necessarily implies the right to refrain from engaging in the activity. In the end, the right to vote is something that is there for the individual citizen’s sake, and therefore there is nothing wrong with each citizen deciding for himself whether or not to employ it in a given election.
It is tempting for someone making my argument to bring up the fact that most "Get out the vote!" types are not so anxious to see people vote as they are anxious to see people vote for their preferred candidates. For example, a Democrat, no matter now incredulous or indignant he may become upon hearing that a fellow citizen does not care about politics enough to vote, is more likely to prefer that that fellow citizen refrain from voting than that he vote Republican. There is nothing wrong with this; it is just a reflection of the Democrat’s own concern for the fate of the country, and his desire to make it right according to his own moral compass. But the point is that most "Get out the vote!" activists are actually targeting one group or another in the hopes that their respective preferred candidates will receive the extra votes that are cast.
However, while the above point remains true, it is not intellectually honest to base my own argument around it, because there are indeed a few people who sincerely believe that a vote for anyone is better than a withheld vote; that is, there is the occasional Democrat who would rather see his fellow citizen vote Republican than not vote at all. So, let us consider the rational intellectual reasons why it might be objectively true that the more votes there are cast, the better the inherent good of the situation, period. Actually, I can think of only one such reason: perhaps some people believe that a high voter turnout is necessary for the preservation of the liberty. In other words, if voter turnout is consistently low, then it will be all the easier for that right to disappear, and vice versa. I do not think that all people who think that voting is so important are also conspiracy theorists convinced that there is a plot to cancel elections and install an oligarchy or despot. However, it is true that in a modern democracy the size of the USA, in this day and age, it is not unheard of for certain freedoms and liberties to be slowly and surely watered down and washed away. It is one thing to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist, but in general being vigilant about our rights as Americans is not unwarranted.
However, in this instance, I would not be concerned about the right to vote disappearing as voter turnout decreases. First of all, even people who do not vote appreciate the importance of the right to vote. Second of all, it would be impossible to sneak such an outrageous act past the American citizens. You see, with speech, it can be done slowly: first, a few words are banned from the airwaves, then certain topics become "unfair" around election time, and so on. It is the same with the right to bear arms: first, you have to be licensed, then you have to have a background check, then you have to wait extra time, then you can only have certain kinds of firearms, then you have to store them a certain way, then you can have the gun but not actually use it, etc. And even with these examples, plenty of Americans have raised their voices in opposition to the encroachment on their freedoms. Given that the right to vote is a zero-sum game – either you have it completely or you have not even a hint of it – it would be blatant and overt if the government did anything to remove it, and the outcry would come from all sectors, not just the folks who actually participate in elections.
Besides which, I do not find any reason to believe that there is any movement to restrict the right to vote, or that there will be any such movement in the foreseeable future. There is no political reason for it, after all. And, should the day come when the government does try to work such mischief, then our problems as a republic will be greater than anything that a "Get out the vote!" campaign could ever solve. (Something along the lines of a "Get out the firearms!" campaign would more likely be warranted.)
In addition to having my reservations about the motives of those who profess voting to be more of a duty than a right, I am in fact convinced of a few reasons why certain people should not vote. Not that I would ever recommend any moral or legal imperative against voting – that is, I withhold ad hominem judgment on the matter – but I think that objectively speaking, it is in some cases better for a citizen to refrain from voting.
Let us consider the large percentage of non-voters whose reason for not voting is indecision or apathy. Most members of that group are probably not very educated about politics. Therefore, it is best if they refrain from affecting the outcome of an election in which the educated, engaged, involved, active citizens have cast their ballots. After all, elections are not about the assuaging of people’s feelings. (Nor are they, as the media would have us believe, about the careers of the politicians.) No, the elections are fundamentally about the fate of the nation and the affect that subsequent policies will have on people and society. Therefore, every indifferent Joe should not be dragged to the polls just to cast a random ballot and perhaps radically alter the outcome of an election from the way it would have gone had only the politically informed people voted. In other words, quality is better than quantity.
Again, I am not recommending that there be some ordinance requiring a certain level of political savvy in order to acquire voting eligibility, not least because no American should have the authority to decide how every other American must answer certain questions before he is allowed to vote. That is a power best left out of any mortal’s hands. All I am saying is that the less politically educated the citizen, the more likely he is to decide on his own to stay home on Election Day, and this naturally occurring system happens to be a good one that no one need tinker with. There is nothing wrong with it just because the vote counter will have one less ballot to go through.
In fact, I wonder if I should not turn that accusation around and direct it at my opponents in this argument. Surely, if voting is a civic duty, then as with every other civic duty, the citizen has a responsibility to be diligent about it. In other words, if someone must vote, then he must not only cast a ballot, but he must take good care to do so in such a way as to affect society in the best way possible. After all, what other civic duty, or anything else for that matter, will have such a major effect on not only the citizen himself, but on all 300 million of his fellow citizens?
So, if my opponents are so inclined to make voting a responsibility, would they also require people to be educated about it? Would they have people spend their precious free time reading a certain amount of newspaper articles per week so that they vote in an informed manner? (This is not even to touch upon the question of who gets to decide which newspapers and articles count as sufficiently informative and unbiased, and which are not worth the paper on which they are printed.) Perhaps, on the contrary, my opponents would overlook even the most remarkable ignorance just to collect another ballot with a random, uninformed, guess-caliber hole cast in it, and damn the consequences to the country. Either way, my opponents are presented with a problem: do they take the duty to vote seriously enough to require the logically corresponding responsibilities, which necessarily include intrusions into citizens’ lives, or do they profess that voting is a duty only in a superficial sense?
The solution, no doubt, is to recognize voting for what it actually is: not a duty at all, but a right, sacred only for the more general political liberty that its existence implies, and justly given entirely to the discretion of each individual citizen.