Book chapter

The Ethics of Voting (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics


The first question that is often raised in a discussion of the ethics of voting is whether or not there is a duty to vote. The view that there is a duty to vote is supported by two main arguments. The first holds that since the value of democratic governance is high persons should vote to preserve stable democracy. The second is that there is a duty to vote because if nobody voted the effects would be disastrous. The first of these arguments is criticized by Jason Brennan, who holds that since each individual vote will play little to no role in preserving stable democracy nobody has a duty to vote. The second is criticized by Loren Lomasky and Geoffrey Brennan, who argue that it is incomplete unless its supporters can show that democracy needs everyone to vote to continue. The question of whether there is a duty to vote naturally leads to the question of whether it is permissible for persons to vote in their own self-interest. Jason Brennan argues that persons should only (morally) vote for candidates or policies that they are justified in believing would promote the common good. It is unclear, however, what "the common good" consists of. This discussion of the morality of voting in one's self-interest leads to the question of whether voting for a politician because she has made campaign promises is morally analogous to a voter selling her vote. In discussing this issue it is important to distinguish between the "restricted" defense of markets in votes (that the purchased votes are to be cast in favor of what the buyer is justified in believing is the common good) and the "unrestricted" defense of such a market (that purchased votes can be cast in any way the buyer pleases). Much of this discussion focuses on the morality of unrestricted markets in votes. Christopher Freiman has offered four main arguments in favor of such a market: (1) that it will make both the buyer and the seller better off; (2) that it is required by respect for voter liberty; (3) that it is relevantly similar to other practices that are currently allowed, such as logrolling; and (4) that it would enable electoral outcomes to better express voter preferences. None of these arguments are persuasive. The first is based on illicitly inferring from the claim that persons would voluntarily buy and sell votes if a market were allowed to the claim that they would thereby desire that this market be allowed. The second argument is flawed because if some persons would prefer that a market not be allowed, this could provide a sufficient reason to restrict their liberty by precluding them from selling their votes. The third argument overlooks important disanalogies between votes traded between voters, and votes traded between legislators. The fourth argument is based on the implausible assumption that vote sellers would not misrepresent their political preferences in a market for votes.