Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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Voting as a civic duty?

Notes on terminology and subjectivity

For ease of formulation, I will usually speak of “candidate[s]”; however, the same, m.m., applies to e.g. political parties in a party-centric election and issues presented for a referendum. (Parts of the discussion might also be relevant to voting outside politics, but, if so, “civic duty” is unlikely to apply, and I make no effort to consider such cases.)

Many formulations contain implicit subjective or relative aspects, e.g. in that “is competent” might amount to “is competent in the perception of the voter at hand and measured against the other candidates”. (My low opinion of the competence of the average politician is no secret.) In a bigger picture, it is understood that the opinions about candidates might diverge based on e.g. different priorities among even intelligent and well informed voters. (However, my low opinion of the average voter is no secret either.)

Voting and civic duties

An utterly absurd idea, peddled by many politicians and many naive pushers of good citizenship, is that voting is a civic duty.

Not only is this absurd, but the opposite applies to the clear majority of the people:

The ramifications of our votes can be so large that we all have a civic duty to vote only when we are sufficiently well-informed, have spent sufficient time developing our opinions and priorities, and are sufficiently strong critical thinkers. For those who cannot with a good conscience claim to fulfill these criteria, the true civic duty is to not vote. This does not mean that we must have perfect knowledge and understanding—or no-one would ever vote. (My own blunders include a far too positive early opinion of Angela Merkel, which took years to adjust to reality.) However, the extreme superficiality of most modern voters is too far from the mark. Merely uncritically reading the paper and uncritically swallowing slogans and emotional arguments from manipulative politicians, while drawing on high-school history and whatnot for background information, is very far from enough. (Should someone doubt the correctness of my claims, look at the quality of politicians typically elected...)

In particular, voting primarily based on pseudo-criteria like race and sex (be they the voter’s or the candidate’s) is grounds for an automatic (self-)disqualification. Ditto voting for a particular candidate out of habit, voting based on who has promised what personal benefit, whatnot .


In the last case, it is important to keep an eye at the motivation and the personal aspect: Voting in a certain manner in order to gain a personal benefit, e.g. a particular handout, is wrong. Voting in the same manner through a moral conviction or a conviction that a particular outcome benefits the country as a whole, even if the result is also beneficial for oneself, is a different matter.

(Similarly, voting for a candidate who co-incidentally has a certain race and/or sex is perfectly acceptable if the voter honestly considers the candidate the best choice based on criteria like those discussed below.)

Relevant and legitimate criteria, in contrast, include whether the individual candidates are competent or incompetent, whether they propose sound or unsound policies on key issues, whether they have a strong or weak track-record, etc. Looking specifically at a representative democracy, the point of an election is to find the candidate(s) best suited for the job from a holistic perspective—not from a “best for me” or “best for the intersectional group that I belong to” perspective.


Another absurdity, especially common on the Left, is the belief, or pretended belief, that the elected should be representative of the people, notably through having the same composition on one or more demographic criteria; in reality, they are representatives in the sense that a lawyer in court is a representative who handles matters for a client. Also note how well this belief fits with intersectionality, us-vs.-them thinking, and other destructive Leftist divisiveness.

From another perspective, it can be argued that a representative democracy (if functioning correctly, which is by no means guaranteed) would find us a group of elected that is representative of the people in terms of opinions, values, priorities, whatnot—which is infinitely more valuable than having the “right” proportions of various combinations of sex, race, ethnic background, etc. I would, for instance, rather be represented by a Black woman who shares my political opinions (and stands up for them) than by a White man who does not.

Reasons for the absurdity

I suspect that most of the pushers are motivated by one of:

  1. A quasi-religious belief in the “will of the people”, where things will turn out for the best, provided that this “will of the people” is found, which requires a high participation of voters—the Pope can speak no wrong ex cathedra and neither can the people ad urnam.

    (This especially among non-politician pushers.)

    While this idea might, it self, seem absurd, I have on quite a few occasions encountered rhetoric compatible with it, and my current readings on philosophy point to major issues with quasi-religious metaphysical nonsense and wishful thinking among historically influential thinkers (not to mention many 20th-century Leftist and/or French pseudo-intellectuals; a text on issues around philosophy is in planning but, as of November 2023, not yet written).

    This type of thinking could also explain some very weird pseudo-argumentation by the Left, e.g. relating to disenfranchisement. For instance, in an older text (TODO import from Wordpress and link), I noted how Leftist agenda pushers considered it better that the votes of some county counted opposite to the actual vote than that they did not count at all—if the votes did not count at all, the voters would be disenfranchised; if the votes counted wrongly, everything would still be OK... Even a Leftist really should see that this does not make sense; however, if we assume such a quasi-religious belief, the reasoning, while still horrendously faulty, can to some degree be understood. (However, it cannot be ruled out that the pseudo-argumentation was recognized as such by the Leftist pushers and still used in the hope of fooling some of the people—an ever recurring problem when trying to understand how the Left ticks.)

    The idea could also be a partial explanation for a drive to increase the voting population, notably, by lowering the age-limit for voting. (Also note portions of the next item.)


    A related or overlapping fallacy is the sometime belief that those leading a large group have an automatic right to influence commensurate with the size of the group—regardless of whether the group members actually support the leadership, regardless of whether the leaders actually work in the best interest of the group members, regardless of the great individual variations that are almost always present in a large group, etc. Note e.g. attitudes to U.N. representation.

    In some cases, this might extend beyond actual leadership and include self-proclaimed “representatives” and whatnots. Similarly, the leaders of a movement related to some group might be awarded influence as if they were the leaders of the actual group, even when most individual group members have neutral to negative feelings about the movement. Ditto, the leaders of an organization with many members (notably, unions), even when the organization might play only a small part in the life of the members and when no leadership over the actual members exist. (Throughout, with reservations for whether the best interest of the group is actually served, etc.)

    (However, it is not always clear whether the problem is a superstitious belief in commensurate influence, regardless of e.g. support by those claimed-to-be-represented, or whether the claimed-to-be-represented are, naively, assumed to be supportive.)

  2. A wish to gain a (pseudo-)justification for power, which, again, requires a high participation of voters: Ruler by the Mandate of the People instead of the Mandate of Heaven.

    (This especially among politicians.)


    Note that I use “Mandate [of the People]” with the same type of supernatural implications as in “Mandate of Heaven”, which (at least partially) differ from those of “mandate” outside this fix phrase. In particular, it goes beyond a mere “has majority support”. A juxtaposition like “King by the Grace of God” and “President by the Grace of the People” would catch a similar idea.

    This does not work well when participation is low, and especially not in multi-party systems, where the ruling party need not even have a majority of the votes actually given, and where a member of a coalition might, taken alone, have only a small fraction of the vote. We might e.g. have a scenario where 50 percent of eligible voters actually vote, the senior partner of a coalition lands at 35 percent of seats, and a junior at 16 (for a total of 51). In a best case, they now have the stated support of respectively 17.5 and 8 percent of eligible voters. Factoring in the use of e.g. a first-past-the-pole system or an entry barrier, the true numbers can be smaller still. And then we have the many who are not eligible voters...


    Germany, for instance, has an entry barrier to parliament of 5 percent of the vote, implying that a party that reaches 4.9 percent will not receive any seats at all. (Barring some exceptions.) Sweden has a similar barrier at 4 percent. In such systems, votes to parties below the barrier are effectively wasted, and it might well happen that some party lands just below the barrier. Factoring in “small fry” parties, we might then see more than 5 percent of the vote wasted in a country like Germany, and need to scale those 17.5 and 8 percent down accordingly. In exceptional cases, more than one party could land just shy of the border, resulting in 10-or-so percent of the vote going to waste.

    Looking at ineligible voters, their numbers are considerable. Alone those below 18 (the currently typical minimum age for voting), might constitute a quarter of the population. (The variation from country to country can be very large. A quarter should give the right idea, however.) Other groups are not allowed to vote for other reasons. For instance, the very many non-citizen residents (e.g. I) are not allowed to vote in federal elections in Germany. Now adjust those 17.5 and 8 percent to find the percentage vote of the overall population.

    (Note that I do not claim that these ineligible groups should be given the right to vote, which is a different issue entirely. The point is that their existence further weakens the claim of a 35 percent, or even a 51 percent, “election winner” to e.g. a Mandate of the People, as the proportion of the people that actually voted in favor is often far, far smaller than those 35, or 51, percent.)

  3. The insight that the more poorly informed and easily manipulated voters are available, the better manipulators will fare and the less matters like competence and soundness of policy will make a difference.

    (This especially among politicians of an ideology whose success is predicated on voters being stupid and uninformed, including most or all variations of the Left, and politicians who suspect that they would be less successful relative their peers, if facts and reason played a larger part.)

  4. A partisan drive to motivate those with a similar political opinion to vote, based on the ideas (a) that those with similar opinions are more likely to be reached by one’s words, and (b) that it would not matter that someone votes and votes in a certain manner for a poor reason, as long as he votes “like I want him to”.

    (This likely with a very wide range.)


Off-topic, but related, I have seen the motivation for democracy (as opposed to e.g. voting-as-a-duty) that “The majority will win anyway. With democracy, it wins peacefully; in other systems, it wins by force—so let us take the peaceful road!”.

This is particularly interesting through dropping the normal image of democracy as something noble and enlightened, and treating it as a pragmatic lesser evil. (I, too, take a “lesser evil” position on democracy, but for other reasons. A focused discussion might follow at a later date; for now, I point to thoughts spread over a number of older texts and some present in this text.)

The claim is not strictly true, however, as the historical winner has often been the faction or whatnot with the most power—not the largest faction. In as far as the majority has won, it has also often been the majority of a much smaller subset of the people than those, today, having the vote, e.g. the majority of some group of nobles. (Even today, having the majority of the people is often less important than having the majority in parliament.) Then we have issues like “loudness”, willingness and unwillingness to use violence, etc., that can distort the results. (In modern society, e.g., extremely loud and ruthless Leftist groups often trump the majority through creating the impression of being larger than they are, through intimidation, through drawing on the willingness of others to compromise and appease, etc.)

Whether the greater expediency of decisions is an advantage or disadvantage is up for debate: Good decisions follow sooner with a vote—but so do poor decisions. Many more radical decisions that pass in a voting system might be blocked, or be passed only much more gradually and over a much longer time, in a non-voting system. For instance, a large scale confiscation of private property might meet violent resistance in a non-voting system, which serves as a deterrent, while it could be effected by a single five-minute vote in a democracy. (Provided, of course, that the result of the vote is respected, which (a) is a potentially flawed assumption of the cited motivation, (b) overlaps with some of the main discussion.)

The lack of such deterrents in a democratic system might even turn the motivation around: Because democracy, naively implemented, makes things too easy for the majority, it will only be a fair option with very considerable additional safe-guards. Note the image of democracy as “the wolves and the single sheep voting on who/what is for dinner”. (While the sheep would not have much of a chance in a non-voting system either, it would have a better chance, and considerable differences could be present in other scenarios. Consider a pack of wolves and a bear in a similar conflict of interest.) Here we also see the issue that, in a democracy, a lukewarm opinion A in even a slight majority will outweigh the ardent opinion B in even a large minority. Whether this is an advantage or disadvantage is, again, up for debate.

Reasons not to vote

Even apart from fulfilling one’s civic duty of not voting when too uninformed, or whatnot, there might be very legitimate reasons not to vote. Some notable examples follow.

The most important is that there simply might be no candidate worthy of a vote, in which case not voting sends a message to that effect and reduces the risk that an unworthy-but-elected candidate can claim the Mandate of the People (cf. above). Notably, it is wrong to consider a non-vote a mere result of e.g. laziness—a non-vote is often a political statement in its own right. The same applies to deliberately void votes, as in Sweden and the many protest votes given to the Donald-Duck party (“Kalle-Anka partiet”). A vote for the “least bad” candidate is certainly an option, but such a vote can be misconstrued and indirectly support Mandate-of-the-People propaganda.


Of course, politicians seem to invariably draw (or claim to draw) the wrong conclusion—something is wrong with the voters and the voters need to shape up.

Also note who would be favored by e.g. a law that everyone eligible to vote must vote, especially in combination with a limitation to officially listed candidates. A benefit for the voters, the country as a whole, whatnot is not very likely, but for the politicians, who can now invoke the Mandate of the People the more strongly (without having a stronger support than in the past), it would be a major benefit indeed.

A rarer variation is that the candidates at hand differ too little in perceived value and values, likely policies, or similar to make the difference worthwhile to a given voter. In as far as this perception goes back to an insufficient knowledge in the voter, not voting could be a civic duty (cf. above).

Then we have issues like the “expected influence” gained by voting. Taking POTUS elections (without a “down-ballot”, cf. side-note) as an illustration, voting outside a swing state is not worthwhile, provided that sufficiently many others vote in a manner representative of the overall population. If some choose to vote and others choose not to, this is perfectly in order. Even in swing states there might be some doubts, as the probability that this one additional vote actually tips the scale in the state is low, and as the result in any individual state is only relevant if it, in turn, tips the scale in the electoral college.


This just to illustrate the principle. Factor in House and Senate elections, state/local elections, state/local referenda, whatnot, that might also be up for the vote at the same time, and there is greater reason to vote. The accumulated probability that a vote in one of the sub-elections does make a difference is far larger (if still small) and might make voting a rational decision—and if someone has already gone through the effort of visiting the polling place, the additional effort of also making a (literal or metaphorical) check mark for a POTUS candidate is minuscule.

A deeper discussion of who should vote or not vote when, based on “won’t make a difference” reasoning, could be an interesting application of game theory, but is off-topic for this text. Note, however, that the more eligible voters refrain from voting, the larger the chance of a vote making a difference, implying that the fewer voters there are, the stronger the incentive to vote is (all other factors equal). Similarly, what if e.g. the supporters of one party has a non-trivially different distribution of the propensity to vote than those of another?

Here and elsewhere it is important to keep in mind the difference between the voting choices of any given individual and those of greater groups of voters. The probability that any given voter will make a difference is small; however, even a small shift in voting in a greater group can have a large effect. For instance, if a candidate convinces a single potential voter to actually vote for him, it means next to nothing, but if he can shift just a few percent of the “undecided” or bring out just a few percent more of the broadly-supportive-but-lazy potential voters, this can win an election. For instance, the vote of a single uninformed, weak-at-critical-thinking, should-better-abstain-from-voting citizen is unlikely to do any harm, but the proportion of such voters is so large that their overall influence is disastrous.

My own voting

My own voting has been quite limited between my move to Germany (1997) and the time of writing (2023). This in part for reasons like those discussed above, most notably a lack of good candidates and a poor return for my effort; however, in part for reasons relating to my status as an immigrant:

On the one hand, I am still allowed to vote in national elections in Sweden (with reservations for changes since I last checked). However, I have doubts as to the ethics of voting in a country where I have not lived since 1997 and where I might never live again. (And the effort is greater and my right to vote “down-ballot” is lesser.)

On the other, I have not bothered with a German citizenship, which implies that I am not entitled to vote beyond the local level in Germany. (While I would be entitled to citizenship upon application, it involves considerable leg-work, a considerable fee, and a stated support for the deeply flawed German constitution; and as a EU citizen, by dint of being Swedish, I would have little to gain beyond the right to vote and easier passport/ID handling.)

Insights to have before voting

(A longer text originally present here is available on a separate page.)