This morning, for some reason, I was piqued to the point where it has flowed over into writing by thinking about some arguments I've either heard elsewhere, or fabricated in my head against voting.
First, let me make it perfectly clear--I have no problem with a deliberate, conscientious choice not to vote. I'm not certain, for reasons I'll discuss below, that I could make such a choice; however, there is a sense in which deliberate abstention is a positive participation in the governmental system (although I do have one question about this that I will ask after I limn the arguments to which I object).
The first, and possibly easiest to dismiss, is the political theory that by voting you give consent to the outcome. The very act of voting means that you are agreeing to the results. This is sheer nonsense as political and moral theory. You can in good conscience vote and NOT agree to the election of the candidate of opposition--you are not morally tied to that candidate in any way. Indeed, it would be as true to say that by living in this country you give consent to the outcome of the elections because you agree to be governed by the results. This is the argument under which Alec Baldwin decided that if Bush were elected he would leave the country (unfortunately, he reneged). A vote is an expression of will and if we will one thing we do not will its opposite (or at least so it can be with many of us). But the individual will is not all that is in operation in an election and under our system of government it is the will of the majority that is expressed in the results of the election. Jesus told us we are the salt of the earth--hence we are not the predominant flavor in most cases--our will is not likely to carry in a strictly secular society--but our influence within that society--including within the voting booths, can "flavor" the way we live.
A second argument that I may have misunderstood or that I may be misrepresenting here is that your vote doesn't count--it doesn't matter in the broad scheme of things. This also is nonsense reductionism. Under this argument the only vote that really counts is the single vote that decides the election and if that isn't yours, the vote doesn't count.
Every vote counts--every vote is an expression of will, a matter of desire. Every vote contributes infinitesimally to the outcome of an election. Not every vote is a deciding vote. The election does not hinge upon each individual choice. However, it does hinge upon the choice of the majority. In order for there to be a majority, there must be some number who are actually voting. If people whose will aligned with yours decided to stay away from the polls in droves, the election could have a different result. In this sense, every vote is decisive. It expresses your will and it contributes to one of the groups that will ultimately decide the outcome.
Mathematically, does it matter? Not to astrophysicists and persons working with gross celestial mechanics for whom 3 is a good enough approximation of pi. But in the mathematics of finite divisions, and most particular in the very fine math of chaotic dynamics, where a difference in the value of the thirtieth decimal place is expressed after four or five iterations, it does. Elections are more akin to chaotic dynamics than they are to celestial mechanics. (And probably bear even a closer kinship to some aspects of game theory.)
The end point is that every vote does count. Every vote is not decisive for the country, but it is so for the individual. Neither of the arguments expressed is a good reason for not voting.
There is one last point I promised to make above--the question of conscientious non-voting. If we grant that a single vote does not count for anything (a point I don't concede), then one must ask how conscientious non-voting can be reasonably distinguished from amoral or apathetic non-voting. Non-voting on principle seems to be indistinguishable from staying home and drinking beer because you just can't be bothered. Now, if we grant that a single individual can be influential (i.e., a vote counts) and that individual speaks up even to a small group about why she or he is not voting, then the picture comes into focus. But if we hold that a vote is meaningless, so too then is the distinction between non-voting on principle and non-voting as apathy.
One final point that rately comes up in the argument about voting. Much, it would seem, depends upon your view of voting. Those who hold with non-voting as an allowable discipline would see voting as a option or privilege--something one chooses because one may do so. That is a viable view--not one I agree with, but certainly one that could be argued with some validity. However, I hold that voting is not an option or a privilege, but the duty and responsibility of every citizen of a free republic run in a democratic fashion. Because I believe this, I am bound by it. (Fortunately for the rest of the world, no one else is bound by my conscience.) For those who regard voting as a privilege or option, non-voting is a meaningful expression of opposition to the current regime. To those who regard voting as the obligation and duty of the citizen, non-voting simply isn't an option. And I'm not certain that there is any way in which to easily alter this fundamental difference in viewpoints. I've tried to argue myself around to not voting--it would be by far and away easier and much less troubling to my conscience; however, no matter how I phrase the argument, no matter how clear I make the points, there is a part of me stubbornly resistant to that persuasion. I've learned, after hard experience, to trust that resistance--it is part of the still, small voice that sometimes speaks to me. And that still small voice speaks to each of us as we are here and now. In this case I do not know that there is a definitive right or wrong in a moral sense, and so what that voice says depends upon the entire aggregate of who each one of us is. As a result, I don't have leave to tell someone else that they are obligated to vote, although I can make the citizenship argument.