On Nov. 8, millions of Americans cast their votes for president of the United States. There are many things in this election that one can complain about, be it the biggest popular vote – Electoral College split in modern history or the president-elect himself.
However, a more banal and unsurprising fact has caught my attention: as in other years, voter turnout was low, particularly when compared to other western democratic countries. Michael McDonald, an associate professor at the University of Florida, estimates that 57.9 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot in this year’s election. This falls in line with the turnout in previous presidential elections that has been in the 50 percentile for the past few decades.
This means that almost half of all eligible voters didn’t feel the need to vote in this election. The reasons that non-voters give vary. Some think that their vote doesn’t really count; some others say that they are too busy or that the voter registration process intimidates them. All these reasons have one thing in common, they are based on the belief that voting is not important enough to do whatever may be necessary to cast the ballot.
There is a moral imperative for eligible citizens to vote, though.
What is usually said to motivate people to vote are phrases like, “Your ancestors risked their lives for this right” or “many people in the world wish they had the same right as you have.” While it is understandable why these lines ought to be compelling, their persuasiveness is lacking. Why should anyone feel morally obliged to people who died before they were even born and why should anyone care about what people in some country far away think? Why should this directly influence what we ought to do?
Registering to vote, finding and going to your polling place and, in some places, waiting in line for hours, all costs time, and sometimes even money. It is very hard to find a case for going through all this if you’re merely concerned with yourself. Getting an “I voted” sticker is only a meager compensation for missing a work day or whatever other sacrifice you must make in order to vote.
Eligible voters may also ask themselves, “What’s the upside for myself when my candidate wins?” The gain may not be so great. “Why should I care what the president’s policy on health care is since I’m already properly insured?”
Voting is a moral action, which is – or at least should be understood as – an action that is not necessarily in one’s own self-interest but in the interest of the world as a whole. Therefore, this argument probably wouldn’t sway a perfectly self-centered individual. It is rather intended towards those who care about others, those who think that the lives of the millions of strangers living in this country and the billions living on this globe do matter.
One of the reasons why a lot of people think that their vote doesn’t matter is that, after all, it’s only one out of more than a hundred million. A kind of dilution of responsibility for the person to be elected sets in, to the point that people may not feel affected and responsible at all. It is the value and the importance of that responsibility that they lose sight of. The problem here is that most people are not used to that type of responsibility. In their everyday lives, the dilution of responsibility is only minor and the scale of responsibilities faced is relatively low as well. An average parent will share their responsibility for the well-being of their two or three children with one person. They feel responsible and are conscious of the importance of the decisions they make. Cause and consequence are within reach, tangible.
When you vote, you share the responsibility with over a hundred million other people. It is easy to lose sight of the importance of your vote when there are so many, when there are in fact countless others. Nonetheless, the result of the U.S. elections affects everybody, whether or not they live in the U.S. You may share the responsibility with a hundred million other people, yet this shared responsibility is of utmost importance for every single citizen who has been invited to cast their ballot. The consequence of this collective decision affects, in one way or another, billions of people, as well as all future generations. The world is so interconnected today that U.S. decisions on foreign policy, economic policy and all other decisions made by the U.S. government have real consequences on the lives of people all around the globe. The responsibility to elect a president is so great that your vote may be one of the most important decisions you will ever make.
The lens through which you judge the candidates is important as well. If the only question you are asking yourself is what candidate will benefit you the most, you’re voting out of your own self-interest. Self-interest is not a good argument to vote because the benefits of voting are limited to you. The arguments against voting are only convincing from a purely selfish point of view.
Voting should be a selfless act, one in which you ask yourself not what is best for you but what is best for your fellow citizens and for all of humanity. Voting in any other manner would not only be selfish but it wouldn’t make a whole lot of sense, either. There are better ways you can serve yourself. If, for example, keeping your job is your main concern, voting for the candidate who you think might guarantee job security isn’t the most productive use of your time. There are other, more effective ways that would increase the probability of keeping or getting a job.
Voting however is about bigger issues, so don’t let the dilution of responsibility allow you to think that your vote doesn’t matter. In fact, many people depend on your vote, and it does matter.