When should people abstain from voting?

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For people who have a “thing” about the beauty of the Constitution, it may be unsettling that we’re even asking the question today, “Should voting be mandatory?”

At last check in a very unscientific survey, 41% of people said “yes,” which just goes to show you how easy it is to get people to endorse stripping people of rights.

The right to vote goes hand in hand with a right not to vote and while many people find that distasteful, that’s the thing about rights. We don’t have to own a gun, for example. You don’t have to be free from a religion if you don’t want to. And rights, you may have heard, are inalienable. Rights are cool like that.

Plus, if you made people vote, you raise another issue: Is the country well served by having people who don’t know what they’re voting on… voting?

In fact, we don’t have to wait to answer that question. At what point are we better off if some people don’t vote?

“There is a legitimate argument to be had about how low your knowledge level needs to be before you should seriously consider abstaining,” Ilya Somin writes today on the legal blog, The Volokh Conspiracy. “The answer depends in part on the knowledge level of the rest of the electorate. Even if you know very little about a given race or issue, you may be justified in voting if the rest of the probable electorate is even worse. But, at the very least, you should probably abstain if you know almost nothing. In that scenario, the average of the rest of the electorate will usually be better, or at least is unlikely to be worse.”

“When voters support bad policies, it is usually out of ignorance rather than selfishness,” Sormin claims.

Let’s face it: There are always two positions on the ballot that people always point to when it comes to voting without much information: judges and soil & water conservation commissioners.

Do you vote anyway for these positions and guess? Or do you abstain?

In these types of races, Somin abstains.


In this election, as in several previous ones, I’m going to practice what I preach. I think I know at least as much as the average voter about the presidential and congressional races, and about Virginia Question 1. On the other hand, I know very little about Virginia Question 2, and almost nothing about most of the candidates in the local government elections here in Arlington County. With respect to the local races, my knowledge is diminished by the fact that the candidates don’t have party identifications listed on the ballot. Therefore, I can’t even utilize my understanding of the general proclivities of the Democrats and Republicans in this area. As a result, I’m going to abstain on most of these issues and leave them to the rest of the electorate, which hopefully knows more.

(Photo: Minnesota Historical Society)

  • Shane

    Follow up question: At what point does abstaining from voting effect the outcome? There was a bit last week on Morning Edition talking about how often amendments have passed (or not passed) due to abstaining from voting equating to a ‘No’ vote.

    I think that abstaining from voting on an amendment should not count as a ‘No’. This, i feel, is basically voting for someone. If the person is not informed about the amendment, and he/she chooses not to vote on the amendment, it should not count in either direction.

  • David

    “And rights, you may have heard, are inalienable.”

    If only. Felons often have their “right” to vote removed.

  • BJ
  • B Joe

    What would be the problem with mandatory voting if all ballots had a “No Preference” option?

    As it stands now, there seems to be no shortage of people voting who have no factual basis for their decision. It isn’t like mandatory voting would somehow sully the pristine choices on an informed, engaged electorate.

    Maybe having more uninformed voters might reduce the effect of ill-informed voters.

  • Matt B

    I did vote on the Soil & Water and Judges, but only because I looked in to them a little bit. I did take a pass on the School Board election since I did not research that race at all.

    Regarding the Amendment voting mentioned above, I do like the fact that you have to actively vote to affirm the amendment. A fundamental change to our governing document should face a higher burden than just a simple majority. Perhaps it could be structured differently, but I think we need something there.

  • Bob Collins

    // I do like the fact that you have to actively vote to affirm the amendment. A fundamental change to our governing document should face a higher burden than just a simple majority. Perhaps it could be structured differently, but I think we need something there.

    There were actually several interesting bills at the legislature this year to make it harder to get questions on the ballot. But they went nowhere.

    One issue that never came up this year was the idea of initiative petition for Minnesota. Where people can get items directly on the ballot with enough valid signatures.

  • BJ

    If you think elections are nasty now, encourage initiative and see the real slime come out.

  • bea

    Based on anecdotes overheard, “abstaining” seems to be misunderstood when it comes to the amendments this year. It’s true that a person who casts a ballot, but does not vote on an amendment question, is counted as a “NO” vote on that question…. but if you fail to show up AT ALL, that is no longer true, and you will not be ‘effectively voting no.’ I’ve heard young/ libertarian/ independent people disaffected by both parties, but opposed to the amendments, say they’ll just ‘abstain’ and count as a NO. But you still have to show up and cast a ballot in some race, for that to work! The amendment votes are counted among the pool of people casting ballots at all today.

  • BJ

    //But you still have to show up and cast a ballot in some race, for that to work!

    Actually a completely blank ballot will work as a vote no, but in the case of a recount you might want to write in someone for one of the races so they don’t think it was a mistake and throw it out.

    My wife informed me that she voted for me today. Not sure what for.

  • Mark

    I’d prefer that all registered voters automatically count as a no toward referendums, regardless of whether they vote, requiring an active, actual majority to win. I think this would cut down on direct-democracy as contrived vote-getting vehicles, Which is precisely (and unabashedly) what these two ballot measures were.

  • tboom

    My personal policy has always been to NOT vote for an office if I don’t know the candidate’s stand on issues. I changed that policy four years ago regarding judicial voting. Here’s why. A group of co-workers was telling (bragging to) the rest of the group that they always voted against the incumbent for every office, ALWAYS an automatic decision, if anyone is listed as an incumbent the other (or another) candidate always gets their vote.

    Even when researching judicial candidates, I find it difficult to know what I’m voting for or against. Judges probably shouldn’t even be on a ballot (although there should be some way to remove a bad justice). I work under the theory that judges are generally appointed by people who know they are competent. Unless a judge makes news for “goofy” behavior, I assume they continue to be competent. I also assume most challengers have some sort of agenda when they file for judgeships, whether it is to carry out an extreme agenda or just get a better paying job, it’s probably for the wrong reason.

    Therefore, I always vote for incumbent judges. I don’t feel good about it, but at this point it’s the best reasoning I have.

    Comments? My behavior can be modified if you have a better idea.