Most Westerners believe there is a moral obligation to vote, but it is difficult to justify this widespread moral judgment. Arguments for a duty to vote typically don’t overcome the “particularity problem”: the reasons theorists offer usually fail to show there is a duty to vote in particular. At best, they show that voting is one of many possible ways to discharge some underlying obligation, such as a duty to exercise civic virtue, contribute to others’ welfare, avoid free-riding, or avoid complicity with injustice. For instance, if one is obligated to avoid complicity with injustice, then one might engage in activism instead of voting. Indeed, voting is often a relatively poor means of discharging these underlying obligations.
Julia Maskivker’s recent work represents the most important attempt to overcome the particularity problem. Further, Maskivker attempts to defend a widespread duty to vote despite conceding that the typical vote has little individual significance. Her argument rests on a duty of Good Samaritanism. We ought to provide help to others when we can do so at a reasonable cost to ourselves. Since many citizens can vote well at a low cost, and voting well contributes to a collective activity that helps people, we ought to vote.
Maskivker argues that citizens should both vote and perform other low-cost acts of altruism—doing activism on Monday does not relieve one of the duty to vote on Tuesday. She responds to the particularity problem by saying, in effect, “Why not both?”
Our recent paper in Politics shows that the particularity problem re-emerges. The particularity problem says, “If the goal is to promote the common good, exhibit civic virtue, or fight for justice, why not do some other action (such as volunteering, activism, or helping to invent a vaccine) other than voting?” Maskivker responds, “Why not both?” We respond, “Instead of both voting and performing some other action, why not do two of those other actions?” If Maskivker responds, “Why not voting plus those other two actions?,” we can respond, “Why not three of the other kind?” And so on.
The problem is that if, as Maskivker concedes, individual votes rarely matter much, then a civic-minded citizen concerned to fight injustice, promote the common good, or exercise civic virtue will almost always have some better alternative than voting. A half hour spent casting a low-value vote could instead be spent doing something higher value, such as picking up litter or volunteering at a soup kitchen. We might not be obligated to perform this higher value action, but we are at least permitted to do so instead of voting.
What Maskivker and others need to do, then, is find some feature that is unique or special to voting which intuitively and plausibly explains why voting in particular is obligatory. Maskivker tries to identify some such features—such as that voting is public, elections are occasional, voting promotes political goods, and so on—but in the paper, we respond by identifying other actions (besides voting) which have these same features, but which no reader would think are obligatory.
Accordingly, Maskivker’s attempt to defend a duty to vote is unsuccessful. Voting well is at best one of many possible ways to be a good Samaritan, and not even a particularly good way at that.