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Yes, You Have a Duty to Vote

The republic’s survival depends on it.

Mark Peterson/Redux

There are two dominant political traditions in the West and the United States: that of liberalism, which dates back to seventeenth-century England, and that of republicanism, with its roots in ancient Athens and Rome. Adherents of the former tradition, which stresses individual liberty, strongly support the right to vote but vehemently oppose any claim that citizens have an obligation to participate in the electoral process. Supporters of the latter tradition, with its focus on the public interest (the res publica), argue that voting is an ineluctable duty of citizenship as well as an absolute right.

In her recent book, The Duty to Vote, political scientist Julia Maskivker seeks to delineate a middle way between these two conflicting points of view. Maskivker contends that citizens have a moral duty to vote, unenforceable in an administrative context but compelling on an ethical level. This duty, moreover, is a duty to vote with care—with at least a minimal knowledge of the issues at stake and the ideological dispositions of the candidates—and some impartiality. It is also quintessentially a Samaritan duty, meaning that the voter performs an act of benefit to others with little or no cost to herself. Where exactly does this moral duty to vote come from? It derives, Maskivker argues, from a more general duty to seek justice, defined as a society’s equitable provision to all its members of at least the minimum primary social goods (such as an adequate standard of living) necessary for a decent life.

Maskivker’s invocation of this concept of justice alerts us to the strong influence on her of the work of John Rawls, something she freely acknowledges. Michael Sandel has been perhaps ­Rawls’s foremost academic critic, strongly objecting to his liberal, neo-Kantian philosophy of putting the “right” (a system of justice independent of any other moral principles) over the “good” (the moral vision through which a community seeks to secure the good life), as opposed to deriving the former from the latter. It is little surprise, then, that Maskivker begins her section on republicanism with an attack on Sandel, accusing him of seeking “moral perfectionism” and of advancing an “incomplete notion of human flourishing” that prizes political involvement above all else.

Maskivker shows more sympathy for what she calls neo-republicanism. This tradition, she explains, derives from the writings of Machiavelli and is instrumental in character, viewing political participation as a means to the end of thwarting tyranny, or achieving a state of “non-domination.” Maskivker indicates, though, that many Americans, especially those at the lower end of the economic and educational scales—who register far lower rates of electoral participation than those in the upper echelons of society do—aren’t necessarily living in a condition of non-domination, since politicians tend to ignore the needs of groups whose members don’t come out in significant numbers at election time. These nonvoters, she says, subsist in a state of “representational inequality.”

This was the situation that German political scientist Armin Schäfer addressed when he wrote a 2011 article called “Republican Liberty and Compulsory Voting.” Schäfer noticed that rates of electoral participation across the Western world were in decline, with the notable exception of the Scandinavian countries, where the scale of voting in national elections was holding steady. Schäfer explained that when the overall percentage of citizens voting drops significantly, the relative proportion as well as the absolute number of the disadvantaged participating in elections plummet. Both Maskivker and Schäfer cite studies demonstrating that the smaller the percentage of the poor who vote, the less generous their government benefits become, a vicious circle that Schäfer proposes to short-circuit by making voting mandatory for everyone.

Schäfer divides contemporary republicanism into two branches, the neo-Athenian (the sterner version that Maskivker decries) and the neo-Roman (the more instrumental one that she condones). Schäfer expresses dismay that neo-Athenians like Sandel, who advocates a “formative project” to inculcate the virtues of citizenship, have shown little interest in compulsory voting, but lauds neo-Romans such as Philip Pettit who support it. Schäfer cites studies showing that making voting mandatory can in some cases raise electoral turnout by almost 25 percent. Maskivker rejects the concept of compulsory voting and, having also spurned any “formative project,” seems to be left with no real means of instilling her moral duty to vote in others.

Schäfer stipulates that while mandatory voting can be justified, it is not necessarily the ideal solution; that would involve, among other things, creating a far more egalitarian income distribution. But he argues it would be easier to institute compulsory voting than to try to transform a country like Portugal into Denmark. What about the United States, relative to Denmark? In a study published in the anthology Activating the Citizen: Dilemmas of Participation in Europe and Canada, political scientists Jørgen Elklit and Lise Togeby explain that Denmark’s exceptionally high voter turnout results from an “early and rapid socialization of new generations to vote in national elections from Election 1,” a high level of trust in the government, relative economic equality, and a widely held and deeply ingrained norm that voting is a civic duty. Needless to say, not a single one of these conditions prevails in the U.S. of A. at the present time.

So, where does that leave an American citizen with respect to the coming presidential election? Surely with a moral, Samaritan duty to vote with care and impartiality against the forces of injustice threatening to engulf her country.