1) I don’t think there is a duty to vote, and I wouldn’t support compulsory voting, even if that was a political possibility in this country. I probably was tempted by that idea back when my fundamentally communitarian intellectual orientation and sympathies were more civic republican than localist/anarchist/radical democratic, but I’m not inclined to think that way now.
2) I do think voting is responsibility though. The difference, I suppose, is that duty, to my mind, implies being part of community or organization which, because it is constitutive of who one is, compels one, by virtue of one’s own identity with it, to support any or all of the operations of the community or organization, whereas a responsibility implies something more relational: that I am obligated, by affection and attachment, to take those actions which most fully reflect and incorporate my connection to all the other members (and all the other interests of all the other members) of said community or organization.
3) That doesn’t mean I reject the idea that one’s formal citizenship or civic identity is constitutive of who one is; I just don’t believe it is comprehensively constitutive of who one is. Which is another way of saying I’m a liberal communitarian: connections to, and dependencies upon, the whole come first, both psychologically and anthropologically, but connections to the whole are always–or at least invariably, so long as we live under conditions of modernity–to be realized through the subjectivity of the individual. (For anyone who has bothered to read my ruminations over the years, this philosophical determination to see the deep communal grounding of our moral existence realized through individual expression is hardly new; I just keep evolving, I suppose, in terms of how I articulate it politically.)
4) In terms of the present articulation, it means, I think, that voting is a way of showing responsibility towards and connection to one’s fellow human being–but so can not voting, under certain circumstances.
5) Those circumstances exist but are, I believe, very rarely defensible at the present moment in the United States of America.
6) Yes, I happily concur that our current winner-take-all, single-member-plurality voting structure, operating in its gerrymandered districts which both reflect and entrench sociological polarization, dominated by often internally rigged political parties, and funded in ways that almost always effectively marginalize anything except elite political preferences, presents few ways of expressing our responsibility to one another. We would be far, far, far better off–despite all of the foregoing’s own particular flaws–with a) parliamentary government with general legislative supremacy (and thus providing for greater vote accountability), b) a tightly regulated and limited election season (and thus preventing the sort of electoral exhaustion which empowers those with the financial resources to outlast the attention of ordinary working people), c) a broad awareness that moneyed interests can influence the electoral process in ways which effectively deny equal representative opportunities to all (and thus obliging that we overturn the horrible Buckley v. Valeo and all the Supreme Court decisions which built upon its flawed individualistic premises), d) proportional voting (and thus allowing for a greater range of the populace to have actually electorally effective reasons to organize on behalf of their ideas), and e) significant decentralization, regionalization, and municipal empowerment (though admittedly the point of this last one has already long been greatly compromised by the leveling and centralizing consequences of global capitalism, but that would involve a whole different set of theses). Since we don’t have any of the above, I can sympathize with people who think there’s no point in voting.
7) But all that said, the fact remains that the two dominant parties in our kludgy, oft-dysfunctional, but still-standing-and-operating governing system nonetheless dorepresent actual substantive differences in political priorities and, therefore, often actual substantive differences in policy outcomes. And so if you believe either one of those sets of outcomes could even just theoretically involve even something as little as doing marginally less harm to those to whom you have a responsibility, then you really ought to express that choice through voting for the candidates of the party in question. (And moreover, if you happen to believe there actually is no substantive difference between the stated political priorities and the hoped-for policy outcomes of the different parties, then I would respectfully suggest that you are either terribly misinformed or marvelously uninformed about the parties and candidates in question.)
8) Obviously, given the realities of local, state, and national political structures and calculations, the foregoing is subject to whatever contextual considerations might come into play in any given electoral contest. Lack of local knowledge is a problem, as is lack of real choice. The first can be blamed on our unfortunately nationalized (and usually starved to the bone) local media ecosystems, but is still, I insist, something that can be rectified by being individually willing enough to follow through on our responsibility to our fellow community members by learning more about whom are presenting themselves as their representatives, and why. The second could be a function of understanding one’s responsibility, quite legitimately, as overwhelmingly tied to a single policy issue or deep structural concern, and not seeing any way as a voter to express that responsibility through the available candidates. To which I can only say: perhaps consider rethinking your conception of how to express your responsibility to your fellow members–and if that doesn’t change anything, then do the best you can with the choices available, using whatever creative options are available to legally expand those choices where you can, all while balancing those considerations in light of the aforementioned consequences. (As a two-time Ralph Nader voting, one-time Jill Stein-voting, one-time Bernie Sanders write-in-voting citizen, I would be a hypocrite if I claimed otherwise.) But either way, take up your responsibility, and stand, either strategically or expressively or some calculated combination of both, for whatever your responsibility to others morally obliges you to use our tottering system to, at the very least, publicly affirm, and vote.
9) The only exception I can see to the foregoing is if you understand your responsibility to others as demanding the promotion of radical, even revolutionary, alternatives, and that which any participation in the present, deeply problematic but still meaningful-in-terms-of-causing-or-mitigating-costs-and-harms system actually interferes with that promotion. I know and like people who affirm that they find themselves in such circumstances, and I don’t dismiss their sincerity. However, I confess that I’ve personally never yet heard from any of them what I consider to be a persuasive argument that participating in a flawed process necessarily excludes or limits participation in the business of building radical, even revolutionary, alternatives to said process. If you have one, please, lay it on me. Maybe there’s some new form of Marxist accelerationism or Christian end-times promotion that I haven’t heard about yet.
10) In the meantime, watch this.
Teaser photo credit: By Tom Arthur from Orange, CA, United States – vote for better tape, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5131677