The Case for Abstaining from Ignorant Voting

Today, Americans will have an opportunity to vote on a wide range of candidates and ballot initiatives. In many cases, however, we will be voting on candidates and issues that we know very little about. It is rational for most voters to be ignorant about most issues, because the chance of casting a decisive ballot in an election is so extremely low. And the available evidence strongly suggests that much of the public is poorly informed about politics and public policy.

Even if you are an unusually well-informed voter, the enormous size, scope, and complexity of modern government ensure that there will be many issues and candidates about which you know very little. Perhaps you have a good handle on Romney and Obama. But you might not know much about your candidates for governor, senator, congressman, and various local offices, or about the various state and local referenda on the ballot in your area.

It’s unrealistic to expect that everyone will achieve a high level of knowledge about every race and every initiative. But if you find that you know little or nothing about a particular race or ballot question, you might want to consider simply not voting on it. As political philosopher Jason Brennan argues, voters have a moral duty to be at least reasonably well-informed about the issues they vote on, because the decisions they make affect not just themselves but all of society. John Stuart Mill put it well when he wrote that voting is not just an exercise of personal choice, but rather “the exercise of power over others.” If you can’t exercise that power in at least a minimally responsible manner, maybe you should not do so at all.

It would be dangerous to give government the power to forcibly exclude ignorant voters from the franchise. Incumbent political leaders could too easily abuse it to exclude their political opponents or to target unpopular minorities. But there is no such danger if a voter voluntarily chooses not to vote in a particular race because he or she decides they don’t have enough knowledge to vote responsibly.

If you abstain from voting, you might worry that the rest of the electorate will take advantage of the situation to bias policy in favor of their narrow self-interest and against yours. But the evidence strongly suggests that most people’s political views are only weakly correlated to their self-interest. When voters support bad policies, it is usually out of ignorance rather than selfishness. There are some important exceptions to this generalization(e.g. – opinion on gun control is highly correlated with gun ownership, even after controlling for many other variables). But it does hold true for most major issues in the modern US.

There is a legitimate argument to be had about how low your knowledge level needs to be before you should seriously consider abstaining. The answer depends in part on the knowledge level of the rest of the electorate. Even if you know very little about a given race or issue, you may be justified in voting if the rest of the probable electorate is even worse. But, at the very least, you should probably abstain if you know almost nothing. In that scenario, the average of the rest of the electorate will usually be better, or at least is unlikely to be worse.

In this election, as in several previous ones, I’m going to practice what I preach. I think I know at least as much as the average voter about the presidential and congressional races, and about Virginia Question 1. On the other hand, I know very little about Virginia Question 2, and almost nothing about most of the candidates in the local government elections here in Arlington County. With respect to the local races, my knowledge is diminished by the fact that the candidates don’t have party identifications listed on the ballot. Therefore, I can’t even utilize my understanding of the general proclivities of the Democrats and Republicans in this area. As a result, I’m going to abstain on most of these issues and leave them to the rest of the electorate, which hopefully knows more.

There is no shame in being ignorant about some, or even many, political issues and candidates. Such ignorance is often unavoidable, given the many races and issues out there and the fact that we all have competing demands on our time. But at least in some situations, it is wrong for us to inflict our ignorance on our fellow citizens by voting on issues we know almost nothing about.