If You Don’t Vote, You Can Still Complain

This article was originally published on May 3, 2016.

Ah, it’s Indiana Primary Day, baby. And as a lifelong Hoosier, I’ve never seen more yard signs, rallies, and political ads in a primary season than in 2016.

Presidential candidates on both sides have made stops across our state and it’s actually kind of cool to see Indiana come into play.

But when candidates roll in, so does political rhetoric.

In 2012, I used to be one of those people that told others that they couldn’t complain if they didn’t vote. I made the obligatory Facebook status about the importance of voting on election day. But as Indiana heats up, I’ve cooled down on groupthink rhetoric – mainly because it’s bogus.

Here’s why:

Georgetown political philosopher Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting, has an excellent post refuting the mantra that “if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain.” As Brennan points out, this argument fails to consider the unlikelihood that your vote will actually have an effect on government policy:

The most obvious explanation is that if you don’t vote, you didn’t do something that could influence government in the way you want it to go. You didn’t put in even minimal effort into making a change…..

But voting isn’t like that! The problem is that individual votes don’t make any difference. On the most optimistic assessment of the efficacy of individual votes, votes in, say, the US presidential election can have as high as a 1 in 10 million chance of breaking a tie, but only if you vote in a swing state and vote for one of the two major candidates. Otherwise, the chances of breaking a tie or having any impact are vanishingly small….

[defenders of the argument that if you don’t vote, you have no right to complain] are really saying something like this:

I ran into someone this morning who complained about how poor he is. I told him, “If you’re not playing the lottery everyday, you forfeit your right to complain about being poor.” The problem with poor people is that they don’t buy enough Powerball tickets.

In my opinion, it’s better to abstain from voting especially if you lack sufficient knowledge of the issues to vote in a minimally informed way. People shouldn’t be stigmatized for abstaining in situations where their participation is likely to make the situation worse, as well.

And unfortunately, the people who stigmatize are often the ones who further this rhetoric.

But even if you don’t vote, you can complain if you’re not happy with election results.

No matter who wins either party nomination today, or even the White House in November, every citizen is affected regardless if they vote or not. It’s not like voting is the miraculous way out of big government’s grip – we’re all still expected to pay taxes and live with outdated laws.

So, go to the polls. Or, stay at home. The choice is yours and no one should make you feel any differently.