How can voting be a duty?

Does a right also imply an obligation?

“It is a central conservative insight that democracy confers both rights and responsibilities. Attending a polling booth on election day is the mildest possible responsibility.”1    Greg Sheridan  


In a democracy one has a right to vote, but does that right also imply an obligation? Are not rights and obligations almost opposites? A right is something you are privileged to be granted; while an obligation is something you are required to do, generally because of a situation you have volitionally placed yourself in. It is therefore unlikely that the two go hand in hand.

  • We have the right to free speech, but does that mean that we are somehow lesser persons if we don't exercise that right by writing letters to the editor now and again or by getting up on a soapbox at least once?
  • One aspect of living in a free country is that, unlike totalitarian states, we have the unfettered right to claim a passport and to travel. However it does not follow that because we have that right we must exercise it, and periodically leave the country.
  • The fact that a woman has a right to an abortion [in societies where it is held to be a right] hardly means that she must exercise that right.

A duty to our country?

“Voting is a civic duty”2 

Whereas it would probably be true that most citizens feel they have an obligation to their country with regard to supporting its defence or maintaining the public treasury, one must be careful to discriminate between doing something which is for the country and something which has no tangible benefit for the country but in effect would only advantage certain politicians.

Is voting actually a value?

“In short, obligations may be imposed on an individual for the benefit of the society generally”[emphasis added]3


If one were asked to man a polling booth on election day, this would unequivocally constitute a service for the sake of democracy, but it is a different matter to claim that voting itself is a democratic service. As mentioned above in the JSCEM report, an obligation must be directed towards a benefit. If a person has an obligation then it is an obligation to present  to the beneficiary what the beneficiary sees as a value.

But how can one person’s vote be of value to the state?

A vote can only be of value if it produces some tangible benefit. It certainly is a value to the person who wants to vote, but from the point of view of the country, although the extra vote may direct the result one way or the other, the vote in itself, is meaningless. Even though universal suffrage is a good thing, what it means is that someone does not have to be qualified to vote. To vote, prerequisite lectures in economic, legal, and philosophical knowledge are not needed. But if the vote is not qualified, how can there be a quality in the vote?
Of course for most of the time this is not a problem. This is because in an election there is generally no right or wrong result, there is only the result the people want. Yes, there are exceptions, such as choosing the more competent leaders to manage the affairs of state through predicaments such as wars or economic depressions. But even then, exigent circumstances, one would think, would demand encouraging people who were not sure to abstain from having an influence. People thinking they have the solution may not guarantee the correct answer, but they will certainly provide a better result than those who have spent next to no time considering the issues.


Comparing the value of a jury decision

Voting cannot be compared with the deliberations of a jury. At the end of a trial the judge will often thank the jury for its efforts. There is reason for this: members of the jury are directed to make the right decision according to law, after careful deliberation of the facts and arguments. The judge cautions them to not allow personal feelings to influence their decision, but only to come to what they believe is the right and just result by deliberating over everything they have learned in court, no matter how long it takes. To achieve what is hoped will be the correct result, potential jury members may even be denied the opportunity to serve if they are deemed  not suitable.

Voting in an election is quite different. Voters are not warned against letting personal feelings sway their decision, forced to sit through hours of political party promotional material, or prevented from voting if they have personal ties with any candidate: a cornerstone of democracy is that no potential voter can be denied the right to vote. This is because voting is not so much about making ‘right’ decisions as about making decisions that personally reflect the beliefs and values of the individual voter. 

Even though history has proven that democratic governments provide the people with more benefits than autocratic ones, this is still beside the point, as it is not good government that justifies democracy anyway. Rather democracy exists purely for the sake of giving the people what they want. Given the highly subjective nature of what are considered to be public ‘goods’, good government also can only be defined as that which the people want.

A voter therefore does not have to justify his or her vote to anyone. It can be a completely arbitrary decision. Bearing this in mind, then if it is completely arbitrary and without justification, how can it be of value to the country? It is merely what the voter wants. How can one person's want be a value to anyone else? 

It therefore follows that if an individual’s vote is of no verifiable value then how do we link it to an obligation? Why should we be obliged to do something which in itself is of no value?


Many citizens feel, for the sake of their country, an obligation to pay taxes or to volunteer for military service in times of war, but is the obligation to vote really similar?

If the vote is not qualified, then how can there be a quality in the vote?

How can one person’s want be a value to anyone else?

 1 The Australian 10 Nov 2005.
 2 ‘Report of the Inquiry into the Conduct of the 2001 Federal Election and Matters Related Thereto’, Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, June 2003, p. 249
 3 Identifying a common argument for compulsory voting in: ‘Report of the Inquiry into the Conduct of the 2004 Federal Election and Matters Related Thereto’, Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, October 2005, p.194.

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