This November, for the first time in my adult life, I likely will not be voting Republican in the presidential election. But neither can I support the Democratic nominee for president. Thus, I find myself in an interesting position: do I find the nearest nominee of a third party with whom I align on “must-have” issues? Or, since this is a principled stand for me, do I simply relax and look for ideological purity, and if I find none, refrain from voting? Often, our culture simply takes it as a presupposition that you have an ethical or patriotic obligation to vote. It is more assumed than defended, and usually comes in the form of the statement “If you don’t vote, then you can’t complain.” But is that really true? In this article, I seek to show that there is a particular ethic to not voting, and in some cases, it can be not only permissible to refrain from voting, but even obligatory.
Let’s start with the obligatory cases, since if these succeed, then it follows as a matter of logic that there are at least some permissible cases. Suppose a potential voter has done no research and knows virtually nothing about a referendum issue (say, about a measure to shift funding from one place to another). Should she vote yes or no? Given what she knows, she has no way of reasonably preferring one to the other. Given that the vote at issue can have repercussions that are good or bad, one can make the case that, ethically, if she does not have a clue, she should refrain from voting. That is, not only is it permissible for her to refrain from voting, but she plausibly has an obligation to do so. This is because it is reckless to so vote.
Consider another case, where you face a referendum with two choices, A and B. If you vote “A,” then all homosexuals will be rounded up, tried, and killed. If you vote “B,” this will happen, but only for homosexuals whose last names begin with “C,” and only once per year. It seems that either choice is unacceptable. Notice it wouldn’t help to have an objector tell you, “But a non-vote is just a vote for whichever one would win!,” or “B is the lesser of two evils!,” or “If you don’t vote, you don’t have a right to complain.” Actually, in these cases, you have an obligation not to vote for either one, and you absolutely do retain your right to complain about it.
So what is the lesson here? We have an obligation to refrain from voting in cases of extreme ignorance, or in cases of two or more exhaustive choices that we can or should reasonably believe violate our principles.
Now consider the current case. I think the principles of the situation prohibit me from voting for either the Republican or Democrat. Thus, I have two major choices: I either refrain from voting at all, or I can embrace a third-party candidate. Now I think we should notice we may not necessarily have either condition in place in order to constitute an obligation not to vote, for me. Why, then, would I not vote?
First, I might refrain from voting as what is itself a protest vote. Contrary to popular belief, I neither cast a vote for Hillary/Donald nor lose my right to protest by not voting. It may be the case that I wish to voice my displeasure in one of the only ways I can: by refusing to play the game at all. This lack of voting isn’t voter apathy; it’s precisely the opposite. It’s precisely because I care that I am even considering this move. I think, then, this move might need to be accompanied by vocal action (whether by letter or in person). It is because I am involved that I retain a moral right to speak to what happens politically. Further, when the votes are tallied, none would be counted from me to a particular candidate; that’s just not how voting works. Neither could my lack of participation be interpreted as support for whomever wins. The hard-core Trump supporters told us he didn’t need us to win; if that’s true, then my position is a “no-harm, no-foul” thing. If it’s not true, as many have said, then we can always say, “we told you so.”
My next moves are to investigate third-party candidates. Currently, I am not sold on any one of them—but it’s only July. And pragmatics are mostly out the window (none of these third-party candidates are going to win the presidential race in 2016). Thus, I can afford to be principled.
Finally, I don’t trust in governments; that’s not where my hope lies. Instead, my hope is in Jesus Christ. I can trust in a God who is in control. This doesn’t mean I won’t vote at all (or even that I won’t vote for someone for president in 2016); I will do my due diligence and vote on issues and down-ticket candidates. Nonetheless, I think I am done with being a registered member of one of the two major parties for a while. The ethics of not voting seem to be relevant.