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.