Wiki­media Commons

A tweet from Elle mag­azine two weeks ago lured fol­lowers to a voter-reg­is­tration site by pro­moting a fake-news headline: “Kim Kar­dashian and Kanye West are splitting up.”

The mag­azine apol­o­gized in the wake of backlash, “Our passion for voter reg­is­tration clouded our judgement and we are sin­cerely sorry.” But plenty of tweeters gushed over the trap for getting more people on the voting rolls.

Elle isn’t alone in a mis­guided passion for voter reg­is­tration. Every election year, “just vote” mantras more mean­ingless than cam­paign slogans crowd social media and TV ads, advocate voter par­tic­i­pation on the premise that the mere act of voting ful­fills a civic duty, regardless of what boxes you check on the ballot.

But civic duty doesn’t require your vote — it requires virtue.  A good citizen is charged with the task of seeking the best for his com­munity, and that means knowing when to stay back from the voting booth. Rather than voting for its own sake, cit­izens should seek to educate them­selves and others so that informed concern, not ignorant con­formity, drives election par­tic­i­pation.

Voter igno­rance is wide­spread and well doc­u­mented: More than a third of Amer­icans can’t name any of the rights guar­anteed by the First Amendment, and only 26 percent of Amer­icans can name the three branches of gov­ernment, according to a 2017 study from the Annenberg Public Policy Center. More than half of those sur­veyed think illegal immi­grants do not have any rights under the U.S. Con­sti­tution.

Ignorant voters aren’t nec­es­sarily stupid. Some­times, acting in rational igno­rance, cit­izens choose not to research the options on their ballots because they know their votes won’t make much of a dif­ference. More often, straight-ticket voters check off the boxes next to a certain political party without taking the time to under­stand what the can­di­dates stand for and why they’re running.

Such igno­rance has real con­se­quences. For example, a voter who doesn’t know the breakdown of the federal budget may think it’s wise to boost enti­tlement spending, noted George Mason law pro­fessor Ilya Somin in a 2016 Forbes interview. Or a voter may attribute eco­nomic trends to politi­cians who aren’t respon­sible for them.

“[There] are a host of issues where gov­ern­ments rou­tinely pursue harmful and mis­guided policies that appeal to rel­a­tively ignorant voters, even though policy experts across the political spectrum rec­ognize their flaws,” Somin said.

But voter igno­rance goes beyond the cure of a high-school civics class. It’s inherent to being human. The most ardent political junkie or learned eco­nomics pro­fessor will never know with cer­tainty just what a can­didate will do for society, or how a policy will man­ifest ten years down the road. Some cit­izens will sense that igno­rance so deeply — as many did during the 2016 pres­i­dential election — that voting is to them a vio­lation of con­science.

Cit­izens who vote in igno­rance or violate their own con­sciences to conform to a mis­con­ceived ideal of patriotic duty do fellow cit­izens, and them­selves, more harm than good.

Abstaining from a vote can be an act of sheer humility and pru­dence. It won’t make or break an election — and for that matter, despite doomsday pre­dic­tions and Flight 93 analogies, no election will make or break the world. A decision not to vote may be a recog­nition of prov­i­dence, or at least of matters beyond our control.

Of course, elec­tions matter, and a citizen who doesn’t care about her society is no more noble than an ignorant voter. To the extent that voter abstention reflects apathy, it’s wrong. But for many voters, casting a vote is a careless guess or an act of con­formity — and that’s far from vir­tuous.

Rather than pushing voter reg­is­tration, con­cerned cit­izens should advocate and embrace edu­cation. We should inform our­selves and others about the society we live in and the prin­ciples we ought to live by so that we do care enough to vote — not caught by clickbait, but moti­vated by concern.

“Join the con­ver­sation by talking to friends, family, and neighbors about the impor­tance of their voice and their vote,” urges When We All Vote, the website Elle pushed readers to for reg­is­tration. “We can change the world.”

A voice and a vote are indeed important rights and priv­i­leges of American cit­izens. But that’s all the more reason to exercise them spar­ingly.

Some­times, choosing not to vote is the most respectful thing to do and the best way to care.

Nicole Ault is a senior studying Eco­nomics.