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Do We Have an Obligation to Vote?

Judy Nadler

Podcast of a presentation October 2, 2008, by SCU Associate Professor of Philosophy Scott LaBarge

Introduction by Center Senior Fellow in Government Ethics Judy Nadler: It probably won't surprise you to hear that I've been asking everyone I meet two questions: are you registered to vote? Do you plan to vote?

Invariably the answers are Yes and No. Here are some facts about voting patterns in the US that might set the stage for our discussion today.

  1. Voter turnout in the United States ranks in the bottom quarter of all democracies worldwide.

  2. During the 1990s, the United States ranked 140th out of 163 democracies in the percent of the population that voted, according to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

  3. Only 44.9 percent of Americans eligible to vote did so during the 1990s.

  4. The Atlanta Journal Constitution this morning reported - as have many other media outlets - that the presidential election this year could hinge on the turnout of 18-29 year old American citizens.

Even as we make it easier for people to vote - through permanent absentee voting, for example -- we still have low turnout. The excuses are varied - I don't have time; I'm not well enough informed; my vote won't count; nothing is going to change; all politicians are corrupt.

Perhaps we are too comfortable a society, enjoying our wealth and forgetful of the political choices that make such wealth possible (although recent events on Wall Street and in Washington sharply challenge such indifference). Or perhaps we are caught in a mix of an urge to democratize and a spirit of entitlement: We extend the vote to any and all without appearing to ask for anything in return.

I think that these insights of political science can help us understand the phenomenon of low voter turnout. But the analysis of this phenomenon is incomplete without a consideration of what we are here to discuss today: Voting as a moral act. At some point, how we understand the ethical nature of voting really becomes the heart of this matter. Do we vote out of self-interest? Out of a commitment to the responsibility inherent in a democratic notion of self-government? Because it's an obligation? Do we NOT vote because we see no benefit from doing so? Because the system seems rigged anyway and because there are other, more fruitful ways to contribute to the community? Or because a cynical electorate "hates" politics?

We are very fortunate today to have Professor Scott LaBarge of the Santa Clara University Department of Philosophy to offer his reflections on the question of an obligation to vote. Professor LaBarge is an expert in the Greek and Roman classics and also teaches widely on contemporary ethical topics; last year he taught a course on citizenship. He is widely praised on campus as an outstanding and provocative professor. We at the Ethics Center have also been pleased to have him as a colleague over the last years. Each Monday morning at our weekly issues meeting we hear his outstanding and provocative insights into ethical issues in the news of the day.

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