March 3, 2018

Is voting worthwhile? (Political philosophy of voting, part I)

Ahead of the Italian elections, in a two-parts essay published on LUISS Open, Gianfranco Pellegrino poses some moral and political questions on voting: is voting worthwhile? Is it a duty that the State should eventually make compulsory? Is it permissible to trade votes? All the answers in our column Moral Sentiments

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From the perspective of moral and political philosophy voting is an interesting phenomenon. Of course, to us – to people allowed to vote or not, to make puns on voting on Facebook, to have a holiday instead of voting – the main interest in voting is being reminded that once, even here, voting was not allowed, or not allowed to anyone. Voting has value as a minimal sign that a democratic regime obtains. Of course, you can challenge the value of democracy, you can miss authoritarian governments of the past, or wishing new ones, or thinking democracy is seriously flawed. But, let me tell this: you can do this only if you live in a (liberal-)democracy. In non-democratic regimes, such complaints are much more difficult, to say the least. Then, they are a bit self-contradictory, as it were.

Now, granted an essential political value of voting, as a means – perhaps not a sufficient means – as a bulwark of freedom, there are other issues. According to Jason Brennan – whose Against Democracy has recently got an Italian edition, published by LUP – we can ask:

  1. Is voting worthwhile? Is losing my time and money (driving a car, going outside if raining, getting information and documents) worthwhile, if the aim is simply casting my vote when other millions people will do – and it is rather unlikely that my vote will make a difference?
  1. Do we have a moral duty to vote?
  1. Do we have, as citizens, a political obligation to vote?
  1. Is it permissible to trade votes, namely selling our right to vote?

Here, I focus on the first question. We can think as follows. There are two possibilities. Either the party I endorse will get many votes, and will win, or not. In both cases, my vote is pointless, because my vote cannot make a difference. Better spending a Sunday traveling or sightseeing. Or reading this article. Of course, each can think this, and if each does, nobody will vote. If so, my vote would be crucial, it will be the only decisive one – and voting would be of utmost importance. Of course, each can think this (namely, each can think that, if everyone thinks that voting is pointless, then my vote is genuinely decisive). If so – if each thinks that one’s own vote could be decisive, because it could be the only vote –, then each will vote, and now my vote would be pointless – either my party is already on the win side or not, independently of my vote.

Then, if nobody will vote, voting is worthwhile. However, if at least some will vote, possibly my vote is pointless. But how can I know who is going to vote? I cannot figure out what is going to happen: either my vote will be decisive, or it will be pointless. To be true, it is much more likely it will be pointless. Then, better to have a day at the beach. But if each thinks this, then … And again and again.

This reasoning is what many scholars call the ‘paradox of voting’. It is similar to many other cases of collective action. It rests on an assumption: voters aims at making a difference with their vote, thereby determining policy-making. Most of voters, of course, do have this aim. If so, voting is worthwhile when you know your vote will make a difference – or it will be likely to do so. A useful vote is a decisive vote.

However, often is really impossible to figure out when my vote will be decisive. Nobody can predict how millions of people will behave – polls? Often polls are wrong. Then? Should we say that voting is never worthwhile? An alternative answer is as follows. II don’t know whether my vote will be decisive, but a rough prediction on the general trends of voters can be done. Then, the purpose of voting can change – not making a difference, but increasing, or decreasing, the strength of the winner. The thought is that a government winning with an overwhelming majority is stronger, more efficient and more legitimate. If you like that prospective government, then your vote can increase its strength, If you don’t like it, then voting for its adversaries will decrease its strength. Then, my vote is not decisive, but it may contribute to change.

We face two puzzles, here. First, it is difficult to predict who will win, even roughly. It is the same problem, after all. You need to know whether your vote will make a difference in getting a majority to a given party. Again, you have polls. But, again, they are often wrong.

Second, it is not clear that a government with a large electoral basis is more efficient. There are many historical cases of weakly supported governments that made a lot, and the opposite has also happened, sometimes.

If so, one can think as follows. There is a set of votes able to give the majority to a party. Not each of the votes within the set will be decisive, of course. There is a threshold to be overcome. Beyond that, any vote in the set does not make a difference. However, perhaps voters want simply to join the set of votes making a difference. Democracy is participation, after all. Then, my vote has a point if it is in the set where votes making a difference belong.

If so, the purpose of voting changed again. It is not making a difference, but rather joining the set of the factors making a difference – even when my vote is redundant. Perhaps, voting is simply a matter of expressing yourself and your opinions. Voting has an expressive meaning, and it always worth the while, even when causally inert. Voting, it may be suggested, is part of our identity as citizens, is a matter of worldviews. It serves to make our fellow-citizens know our thoughts and ideas, even if those thinking like us will never be in Parliament. Voting is like expressing our ideals, like being loyal to principles. Then, it is always meaningful. But here we are approaching the morality of voting, which will be the focus of the second part.

The author

Gianfranco Pellegrino

Gianfranco Pellegrino is a researcher at LUISS’s Political Science Department


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