What Is A Voter's Responsibility?

Close up of male hand putting vote into a balot box
Close up of male hand putting vote into a balot box

With election day fast approaching, it's worth asking: what is a voter responsible for doing? This is not a rhetorical question. Since only 57.5 percent of eligible voters exercised the franchise in 2010 , "voting" would seem the obvious answer. Yet that answer, without historical context and some depth, is too simplistic.

Those who do not vote take for granted a right that took over 125 years of political campaigning and civil war to extend first to all white men and then to freed male slaves and finally to women. It took another half century to ensure African Americans who have the legal right to vote can mostly do so without intimidation - and to extend the franchise to eighteen-year-olds.

We also take for granted that voting was not always at the core of our republican form of government. Many of the framers of both the federal Constitution and state constitutions did not like the idea of widespread suffrage, which they associated with rule by the mob. It is a measure of the lasting power of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution that a republic founded by "gentlemen" evolved into a democracy - rule by the many replaced rule by the few.

But the framers' worry about democracy is not totally unfounded. Their concern was that many people, swayed by emotion, selfish interests, and demagogues, could not be trusted with the vote. As Washington put it in his Farewell Address, the spirit of party and faction can allow "cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men . . . to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government." James Madison had a similar fear. In Federalist #10, he cautioned against the danger of faction, which he defined as any group "united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." His greatest concern was tyranny of the majority, for if a faction captured the reins of government through popular vote, there could be no stopping what it would do.

The antidote for Washington was both vigilance and learning: "In proportion as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened." Madison called attention to civic virtue: "Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation. No theoretical check, no form of government, can render us secure."

What then does it mean to vote responsibly? At least four things. First, it does mean voting. All those who rail against "politics as usual" and the power of elites, big money and narrow interests can bring about change, but only if they vote.

Second, it means serious thinking. Voters need to look at candidates and issues without pre-set prejudices or the tendency to rationalize the faults of their preferred candidate. They need to subject all politicians to the requirement to prove statements through facts and defend positions by logical argument. They need to think in greater depth than headlines and sound bites. Even such supposedly thoughtful exercises as presidential debates are essentially campaign ads and boxing matches, in which a "round" is little more than three minutes, hardly enough time to provide a coherent thought and the evidence behind it. And thinking does not mean cherry-picking facts and arguments to accord with what we "feel." It means subordinating feelings to the search for objective evidence. Voters need to consult not just Web sites and media they like, which merely reinforce their views, but unemotionally explore those they don't.

Third, responsible voting means suspending judgment. In the age of cable channels, talk radio, the Internet, and social media, people have a tendency to accept at face value anything they hear as soon as they hear it, especially if it agrees with their current ideas, and to pass it along without testing its veracity. Such voters make snap judgments, which easily take on the character of permanent ones.

Finally, voting responsibly means looking out for the "aggregate interests of the community." Voters can certainly question whether a candidate proposes to give them what they want, but they also must ask whether that candidate gives the nation what it needs - and personal wants and national needs can differ dramatically. It means thinking long-term. It means sacrifice, as Washington also said, "not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear."

In short, voting is not just pulling a lever. A voter is not a consumer of government, choosing that person who will deliver the goods he or she wants. Voting is a sober act of citizenship. If we want better government, we need to be better voters.