Compulsory Voting: Not Enough to Show There’s a Duty to Vote

Chapter Three–“Do Your Share or Else”–of Compulsory Voting: For and Against considers and rebuts a range of deontological arguments for compulsory voting. Many of these arguments attempt first to establish that there is a duty to vote, and then conclude that compulsory voting is an effective means of making people discharge their duty. No doubt it is effective; compulsory voting does indeed increase turnout. But the problem is that we can’t easily move from “You have a duty to vote” and “The government may compel you to vote”. To see why, consider the following cases:

  1. Mark promises Allison to drive her to the airport. When the time comes, he reneges, saying he’d rather play video games.
  2. Mark promises to marry Allison. On the day of their ceremony, he reneges, saying he’d rather play video games. He offers to elope the next day instead, provided he beats the current level.
  3. Mark forgets his first anniversary with Allison. He does not buy her a present or do anything special for the day.
  4. Allison is a devout Catholic, and so will not divorce Mark for any reason. Mark decides to sleep around, knowing Allison will not leave him, though his infidelity hurts her.
  5. When Mark and Allison have children, Mark shows the children little affection or love. He provides them with the material goods they need, never abuses them. But He never says “I love you,” never cheers for them at soccer games, and never smiles at them.
  6. Mark wins millions of dollars in a lottery, more than he could ever use. He pays his taxes in full, but never gives any money to charity. He does not help his sick mother with her medical bills. When he dies, he leaves no money to his children or grandchildren.
  7. At work, Mark does the bare minimum not to get fired. He frequently promises his boss to get things done at certain times, but doesn’t do so.
  8. Mark frequently promises co-workers that he will help them with projects, but he never does so.
  9. Suppose God exists. Mark is aware that God exists, but never worships Him. In fact, he openly mocks God.
  10. Mark is aware of his character flaws, but actively chooses not to improve his character in any way.
  11. Mark decides to smoke, overeat, and overdrink, not because these things bring him joy, but just to spite health fanatics.
  12. Whenever Mark does something wrong, he refuses to say he is sorry or to make amends.
  13. Mark never shows gratitude to anyone for anything.
  14. Mark has a managerial job. He decides to promote workers who share his taste in music, rather than promoting the best or most deserving workers.
  15. Mark joins the Nazi party and starts writing Nazi literature. He advocates that the state slaughter Jews and expel blacks.

Mark is a derelict boyfriend, husband, employee, father, and son. He’s a jerk. He violates duties of beneficence, duties of special obligation, duties of gratitude, duties of justice, duties of self-improvement, and duties of fidelity.

In each case above, Mark acts wrongly and violates a duty. Can the state compel Mark to act better? No:

It should not force him to pay even a small fine for his bad behavior. In each of these cases, intervention goes beyond the scope of the state’s rightful authority over Mark. It’s wrong for Mark to act badly, but it would also be wrong for the state to intervene.

Only in special cases may the state intervene to force us to perform our duties. So, for instance, the state may intervene to stop us from harming one another. It can intervene to force us to perform certain contracts (or, rather, to pay for damages when we fail to keep those contracts). It can force us to perform some of our special obligations, such as our duty to care for our kids. But most of our moral obligations are not enforceable.

So, there is a huge gap between “You have a duty to vote” and “The state may force you to vote”. Anyone who makes a duty-based argument for compulsory voting needs to close this gap. The defender of compulsory voting needs to show not only that there is a duty to vote, but also that it is an enforceable duty.

In the introductory chapter, I argue that justifying compulsion–even minor compulsion–is no easy task.


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Author: Jason Brennan
  • Jameson Graber

    Number 15 is borderline, I guess. In a lot of democratic countries, Mark probably would face punishment by the state. And I’m not 100% sure they’re wrong.