Is it wrong to vote?

| July 21, 2013

Soon again every Australian will have to step into a voting booth for the federal elections. Dr Piero Moraro from the CSU School of Humanities and Social Sciences raises the ethical question if voting could be legally right and morally wrong at the same time.

As elections approach, we are reminded that it is our duty to turn up at polls on Election Day. Australia is one of the few countries that legally enforce voting, that treat a failure to vote as a failure to pay taxes, to respect speed limit, etcetera. We have compulsory voting in this country, and those who defend it claim that it is the best instrument to ensure the quality of Australia’s democracy. The more engaged citizens are, the better the community.

This is certainly true; however the word ‘engagement’ is tricky: If I was to go to the church every week and listened to my iPod during the entire Mass, it would be hard to say that I am a good Christian, in spite of me turning up every Sunday. Physical presence per se does not have much to do with being engaged.

We could question whether voting is indeed our duty as citizens. There are things that we, usually, must do, such as paying taxes and obeying the law. I say “usually” because there are other factors that might defeat such obligations: for example, if the law was unjust we may have good reasons for disobeying it; similarly, if our taxes were to go in support of unjust laws, we may be justified in refusing to pay our taxes.

In cases like these, we come to appreciate the distinction between “moral” and “legal” obligation: there are things that we simply should or should not do (moral obligation), and things that we should or should not do because the law says so (legal obligation). Often, the “moral” and the “legal” are separate. For example:  I have a legal obligation to park my car within the allocated space, but it is not morally wrong for me to park outside of it; on the other hand, I have a moral obligation not to cheat on my partner, though it is not against the law for me to do so.

This last case is interesting because it shows that even is something is legal, it might be morally wrong. “But it’s not against the law!” would not be a great way to justify cheating on one’s own partner. Similarly, refusing to help a victim of genocide would not be justifiable on the ground that “the law says we cannot take asylum seekers”: refusing to help would be morally wrong though, sadly, lawful.

When it comes to voting, something similar seems to be going on. There are cases where voting is morally wrong: it is wrong when it supports governments that will unjustifiably infringe on human rights; it is wrong when it expresses support for morally objectionable values, such as racism, sexism, greed; it is wrong when the voters are careless, ignorant, unmotivated and end up throwing their votes with the risk of supporting morally objectionable candidates. But still, democracy gives each of us the right to vote. And so here’s the paradox: democracy gives each of us the right to do wrong.

Maybe we care only about the legality of our actions, and so we’ll feel good as long as we turn up. But if we care also about the morality of our behaviour, then we might look at voting under a different light. We might not want to do what is morally wrong, even if the law says we should.



  1. ccollin6

    September 22, 2013 at 1:28 pm

    Is it wrong to vote?

    That is a conundrum! Even when something is lawful, it may not be advantageous. In the final analysis the voter and the non-voter will be subjected to the will of the victorious candidate. In any event, even when and if everyone voted only one party's candidate will emerge as winner. Even if discerning voters made the choice of what they surmised to be the most capable candidate, the agency of free will does not guarantee an elected official that will perform as predicted. The concern and argument is valid though.