The Consequentialist Rationale for Voting

Why We Vote and Why We Don't, part 1

In 2008 I was living in Gainesville, Florida. On Tue Nov 4 that year, I went to my local precinct and voted. When I came home, I wrote this poem that expresses the growing sense I have had of the sacred act of prayer that we call voting.
November Tuesday

It felt like church: sacred, moving.
Gathering at the temple/precinct with my neighbors
I say hello to the greeter, am known, identified.
I receive my order of service, the ovals to fill in.
My neighbors and I come here because we, the people, have work to do.
This is our liturgy, “the work of the people.”

Many of us have studied the scripture
The lectionary prescribes:
Press articles, candidate records and statements.
We are ready for worship.

I go into the confessional booth and pray.
Before I pick up the felt-tip marker,
I bring my palms together,
take a moment,
feel the touch of god.

I am aware of my expansive vastness,
My tiny smallness,
And the sacrament before me,
this paper wafer transubstantiated body politic of christ,
this marker-ink wine, the black blood of the people, chosen, choosing.

I know the math.
The chance I’ll die in a traffic accident driving to the polls
is hundreds of times greater
than the chance any candidate I vote for will win by one vote.
Determining an outcome cannot be the reason to take this communion.
A vote is a prayer, and changes things the same way:
by changing the one who makes it.

I cast my ballot bread crumb upon the waters,
Causing no one’s victory or defeat,
Joining with something larger,
Participating in the infinity of history,
Lifted out of myself into the shared soul of
113 million voters,
7.6 billion humans on the planet,
all life that ever was or ever will be.
World without end amen.
How do we get more people to vote? Do you really want to know? There is a way, but it isn’t easy. LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright are co-founders of the Black Voters Matter Fund. They’ve seen success in turning nonvoters into voters. They write:
"This summer, we chatted with a nursing assistant at a restaurant in Americus, Ga., who had just decided to sit out the midterms. We asked her a few questions and learned that some of her family members didn’t have good access to health care. One even had to drive some 100 miles to get to the nearest hospital; eight rural hospitals have closed in Georgia since 2008, more than in any other state except Texas and Tennessee. We asked her, 'Do you know what’s happening with Medicaid?' She didn’t. So we explained that if Georgia followed the more than 30 states that have expanded Medicaid, rural hospitals could stay open and it could create thousands of new health care jobs. Her face lit up. She walked across the street to our bus and filled out a voter registration form. And she persuaded her friend to do the same." (New York Times, 2018 Oct 27)
They have a model and an approach that is one version of what we’re going to have to do to increase voting rates. It’s not an approach that we could start on today and make any difference in Tuesday’s turn-out.

For Tuesday, there’s still time to sign up for phone banks, and groups that are organizing rides to the polls. And if you’re going to be doing those things, bless you, bless you.

There’s also the task of removing barriers to voting. "Hundreds of thousands of nonvoters want to vote, but can't." (NPR) Restrictive voter ID laws, registration difficulties, or ineligibility due to a criminal record are true and real problems. We could work for removing those specific legal barriers. Let felons and ex-felons vote. Allow on-site, day of voting registration. Expand early voting opportunities -- ultimately we could have election MONTH instead of election DAY, with polls open 24 hours a day for 30 days. Once the dust settles from Tuesday’s elections, we face the task of implementing those changes.

But there’s still a deeper issue. A lot of nonvoters just don’t want to vote – and that’s where the long slow work in various forms comes in. LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright’s organization is one good example, and there are others. It’s the work of building belonging and community.

First, let’s look some of the usual arguments about why people should vote, and why those arguments fail. The truth is, they’re lousy arguments. The great ethical theories fail to provide a compelling argument in favor of voting.

Take, first, consequentialism. Consequentialism says: estimate what the consequences of your action would be. An act is good if it produces good results – or could reasonably be expected to probably produce good results.

The consequentialist has a hard time justifying voting. The opportunity costs alone would seem to make it not worth it. The time it takes to go to and the polling place, wait in line – which might be a long line – and finally fill out and cast your ballot – not to mention the time spent familiarizing yourself with the issues and the candidates – all of this takes time that you could have spent earning money -- or volunteering at a soup kitchen – or playing video games. The chances that any candidate you vote for will win by exactly one vote are vanishingly small. More good would come from spending that time doing anything that produced any good at all.

Sometimes people say they vote for the sake of the winner’s mandate – either to improve the mandate of the one they vote for, or diminish the mandate of the candidate they don’t like. But the odds of one vote having any effect at all on the mandate are as vanishingly small as the chances of one vote determining the outcome. Plus: studies by political scientists find that a winning candidate’s ability to get things done is not affected by how large or small margin of victory is. The mandate argument doesn’t wash.

From a consequentialist point of view, the rationale for voting is very weak.

Next: Kantian Ethics

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This is part 1 of 3 of "Why We Vote and Why We Don't"
See next: Part 2: The Kantian Rationale for Voting
Part 3: Voting is Being Part of Something Bigger
Images from Shutterstock, free version by permission


  1. Thank you for this most important way of reflecting on why people vote--or don't vote. I'd never thought of it in those terms, but it certainly makes sense.

  2. One the proudest moments of my life was the first Tuesday in November 1980. My son Jason and voted together. He read all the propaganda of both parties. It was his first time voting. When I teasingly asked him how he voted he smiled and said dad that's why it's a secret ballot. But I knew we shared the same ideals. I won't tell you how I voted either. I haven't missed one yet. Almost missed the vote November 2004 quad bi-pass. I told them I wanted to be home to vote I was discharged two days before election strolled to my booth and cast my vote.