In a Democratic Society, Legally Cast Votes are Not Unethical – Even When You Disagree With the Reasons Behind Them

Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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53 Responses

  1. Fnord says:

    I’m not sure that strategic primary voting is unethical, but surely there are ways to be unethical in casting legal ballots.

    For dictators, who hold all the sovereignty, there are ethical and unethical ways to rule.  Why would it be any different for a voter who holds only a fraction?Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Fnord says:

      The casting of a ballot is not unethical, any more than (in the case of a dictator) the signing of a name is unethical.

      Are there potential public policies that are unethical? Certainly.  Are their people who might hold public office that are unethical?  Absolutely.  But holding a position and the act of casting a ballot are two separate acts.

      If you begin to say that this type of person casts unethical votes (not because of the end result, but simply by the actual act of casting a ballot) – then why should that person be allowed to cast any ballot at all?  Shouldn’t we really, to make a better society, not let those people vote at all?

      I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this.  You can have unethical policies and people that are voted in, and you certainly need to deal with that.  But declaring certain kinds of ballot casting ethical and approved and others not is folly.Report

      • Fnord in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Ahh. I misunderstood.

        Still, though.  You yourself present the example of King Robert, sitting unaware of the policies enacted in his name, presumably signing papers in ignorance of their contents. Is he acting unethically? That seems to be the implication. Are voters who cast ballots in ignorance acting unethically, then?

        Even if one thinks they are, that doesn’t mean a law blocking ignorant voting would be wise. Such a law would have an absolutely staggering potential for abuse, clearly.Report

        • Tod Kelly in reply to Fnord says:

          Perhaps the Robert example was not the best – or at least not done properly.  What I had meant to say is that I think we have a tendency to think that we have no power; when actually, we have all the power, but don’t seem to care enough not to abdicate it to others.

          Regarding your other point, I am in total agreement.  It is one of the reasons I cringe when people suggest mandatory voting… if you don;t know enough to vote as it is, I’m not entirely certain that adding you into the mix is helpful.  But you’re dead on saying that any method to try and keep the ignorant from being able to vote would be used improperly.Report

  2. Tom Van Dyke says:

    I think voting for one’s best choice in the other party is ethical, messing up the other party is not, even if it’s legal to vote for the worst candidate.  The sucker could still get elected president, you know.


    • Tod Kelly in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      Out of curiosity: Is a filibuster a breach of ethics?Report

      • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        If you filibustered the Senate just to shut it down out of spite, sure.  Any proper mechanism can be hijacked for nefarious purposes, and that’s what we’re talking about here.

        WillT’s example of choicers infiltrating a pro-life group is a fine illustration. How can bad faith be ethical?Report

      • isaac in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        no….. filibusters are there to stop abuse of the minority by the majority…. those who support the legislation being filibustered will always be opposed to them, but ultimately if the people in support of a piece of legislation are more determined than the people opposed the legislation will still be passed with nothing but a little bit of vacation pay lost.Report

    • BSK in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

      I argued this on the original post… There is enough incentive not to vote for a jerk that anyone who would reasonaby risks the potential outcome. I wouldn’t vote for a homer on ethical grounds but because I want to do as little as possible to support ahomer in power.Report

  3. Will Truman says:

    I guess for me it comes down to a couple of things.

    Because the act of casting a legal ballot, for whatever reason, is not unethical. The insistence by those in power that voting is something you have the right to do – but only so long as you vote the way they wish you to – is.

    Just because something is a right does not mean that all uses of that right are equally legitimate and should be viewed as equally acceptable.

    By way of example, if I am a member of a pro-choice club in college, having a bunch of pro-lifers join so that they can change the platform, that may be in accordance with university policy and/or the organization’s bylaws, but it is nonetheless operating in bad faith.

    That it is their right to do so is beside the point. Arguably, that it is a right makes the appropriate use of that right a greater imperative.

    (So how do we decide what an “appropriate use” consists of? There’s no objective answer, but one would think that the party whose banner the selected candidates are running under would have some say over the matter, no?)Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to Will Truman says:

      For me, I think there is a difference between distinguishing between good and bad/poor/foolish votes, and saying that someone who votes for reasons other than mine are unethical.

      Earlier, E.D. planned on voting for Paul (maybe he still is?) even though he thought Paul mightn’t be a good president, because he wished to communicate a certain message.  Was this unethical?  I might be a member of party A and have already decided that the incumbent from Party B is the best guy, and so might purposefully vote against my own party’s guy that is most like to beat him.  Would this be unethical?

      When push comes to shove, I do not think of either the GOP or the DNC as some college or neighborhood club.  They are the Power in out political system; that they are each corrupt and constantly act in bad faith in beside the point.  I find it troubling that the notion of us acting on our legal rights in a way that those in power find threatening is considered unethical.Report

      • isaac in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        I just want to say that I’ve heard many young democrats say that they’d vote for Ron Paul over Barrack Obama…… and I, because I will not even consider entertaining any “lesser of two evils” type arguments, have never voted; and unless Ron Paul gets the Republican nominee or the Libertarian Party runs someone worthwhile I will again not be voting (note:  if I where old enough I would of voted for Harry Brown in 2000, Ross Perot in 1992&1996, Ron Paul in 1988 and Barry Goldwater in 1964)Report

        • isaac in reply to isaac says:

          to clarify what is perhaps not clear…..

          the point of saying who I would have voted for is to show that I do pay attention to politics…… also, after Obama claimed the large margin of victory and the high voter turn out as a sign of a mandate in 2008, it made it clear to me that not voting can also send a message.Report

          • BSK in reply to isaac says:

            Isaac- your point re: mandate is an interesting one. The problem is that Bush2 claimed a mandate despite losing the popular vote. So it is likely that a pol can claim a mandate regardless if what the numbers say.Report

        • Tom Van Dyke in reply to isaac says:

          I just want to say that I’ve heard many young democrats say that they’d vote for Ron Paul over Barrack Obama

          This means less than zero.




          • BSK in reply to Tom Van Dyke says:

            Not if we are erroneously assuming that any Dems voting in open primaries for Paul are doing so in bad faith. If they would geuniely supporr Paul then their primary vote is every bit as legitimate as a GOPer’s. And a loyaltly oath would theoretically prevent them from voting for their preferred candidate in the general if the preferred Obama over the eventual nominee. The oath would require them to either vote against theirmown preference or not vote at all. This is far from meaningkess, since I would argue that is a far more unethical position for the state to put a citizen is than “strategic voting” is.Report

  4. Will Truman says:

    I have less a problem with what EDK is talking about than what I am talking about. EDK is acting in good faith, choosing the presidential candidate that he believes would do the best job or that he would most like to see elected (over some threshold of electoral credibility). Whether this is good and proper is in a gray area. I’m unlikely to criticize it, though I could see how someone might view the situation differently.

    I find it troubling that the notion of us acting on our legal rights in a way that those in power find threatening is considered unethical.

    The vast majority of people acting in a way that each party finds threatening are acting in benefit of the other major party. If you’re purposefully putting forth a weak Republican to increase the odds of a Democratic victory, you’re not striking a blow against the party system or party dominance. You’re merely picking sides.

    Again, though, if you’re choosing the best candidate from the more competitive primary, even if you are likely to vote for the candidate from the non-competitive primary, I view that differently. But you seem to be suggesting that from an integrity standpoint, these two are the same as one another and both the same as casting a vote for the guy you want to see occupy the Oval Office.Report

  5. Kolohe says:

    Unless I am missing something, this argument states that organized groups of non-Republican voters (the Occupiers and the Black Panthers were the two that were mentioned) will swoop in to nominate an unelectable GOP presidential candidate, thus ensuring an electoral college victory for Obama come November.

    Since one of these was me, let me clarify.  Indeed all’s fair in love and politics (which, as the saying sorta goes, is war by other means).   What I find a bit hypocritical is the Democratic side having a talking point that the Republican’s are interfering with poor and minority voting (via ID req’ts and the like) when Occupy is on the verge of interfering with small d democratic processes themselves (by Occupying pre-caucus events).  In this case, it’s the Republicans doing silly (but legal) things like loyalty oaths that  would one would presume, at least to have a chilling effect on some Virginians’ legal right to vote in whatever primary however they want to.  (and since poor and minority voters are less likely, on balance to actual vote republican, disparate impact and all that)

    More precisely though, I *will* (future conditional tense) find it hypocritical, but if and only if Occupy does actually do something on the day of the caucus at caucus events.  They have said they’re not going to do it, and that’s why I actually said I’m reserving judgement – to see if  it’s Han or if it’s Gredo that’s going to shoot first this season.Report

    • Nob Akimoto in reply to Kolohe says:

      I don’t see the hypocrisy of exercising a legal right to vote on one hand, and protesting people trying to take away another’s legal right to vote on the other.Report

      • Kolohe in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        In the narrow, zoomed in sense, yes they are not equivalent (and the Dem’s have the moral high ground).  In a large “Hey you’re interfering with elections, democracy and the Will of The People” there is some ‘both sides do it.’  (And that’s putting aside the hardball politics, which both sides definitely do, of using any bit of election law you can to your advantage – and complaining about it when it’s not to your advantage – e.g. how President Obama was able to cruise to election in some of his prior contests)Report

        • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Kolohe says:

          I’m with you on this, Mr. Kolohe.  Seeing through the game isn’t the same as winning the game, as I’m fond of quoting from North Dallas Forty.

          That Barack Obama understood the game and its rules and then won at it is a political virtue, not a vice.  He actually got a hair fewer votes in the primaries than Hillary in 2008, but out-organized her in gathering delegates from the caucuses.  Same with the GOP candidates who didn’t get themselves onto the Virginia ballot for 2012.  And you want to run the country, dude?

          I took martial arts for a little while.  Do y’all know why they karate-chop those stupid little boards?

          Because in the end, you either broke the board or you didn’t.  The rest is just talk, not reality.Report

        • Nob Akimoto in reply to Kolohe says:

          I’m a bit ambivalent on the idea of spoiler voting in primaries, but I have to admit that politics is indeed a dirty, hardball business. The campaign staffer part of me is very much in conflict with the policy-analyst part in terms of what makes for good electioneering.Report

      • DensityDuck in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

        I’m glad to see that you support the Westboro Baptist Church’s exercise of their legal First Amendment rights.  Because, after all, if something’s legal then it can’t possibly be a problem, right?Report

        • Nob Akimoto in reply to DensityDuck says:

          Weak. Sauce.

          As for supporting WBC’s right to be jackasses? Yeah, I support it. Might not like it, but it’s their first amendment right.Report

          • DensityDuck in reply to Nob Akimoto says:

            I’m sorry, there you were arguing that exercising a legal right can’t be a problem.  Make up your mind.  Either it can be, or it can’t be.Report

            • Nob Akimoto in reply to DensityDuck says:

              I apologize, perhaps I did not make myself sufficiently clear.

              Let me bullet point it for you:
              1. Kolohe argued that there was a hypocritical element in those who critiqued voter ID laws and yet were prepared to be spoiler votes in an open primary.
              2. I argued that there is no inherent contradiction between the two positions.
              3. You somehow inflated this to mean that I was arguing legality was the same as non-problematic. Then you proceeded to attack me with a stupid implication suggesting I was sympathetic to the arguments of the Westboro Baptist Church.
              4. I noted that your argument was weak, but that I did in fact support WBC’s first amendment rights.

              I don’t think there’s actually a coherent thread here for which you can base your critiques.Report

      • Scott in reply to Nob Akimoto says:


        So please tell us how are Repubs are trying to take away anyone’s right to vote?Report

        • Nob Akimoto in reply to Scott says:

          Is there really any argument that Voter ID laws and the overblown bullshit about voter “fraud” is anything more than an attempt to restrict voter access? Because, really, outside of the Alternative Universe of Fox and Friends, there’s nothing in this universe that says otherwise.Report

          • Scott in reply to Nob Akimoto says:


            Hey it it isn’t illegal then it must be okay, right.  Isn’t that that point of those who are outraged by the GOP asking folks to have integrity when voting?  In any case, if the unions require picture ID to vote then it can’t that bad for the rest of us given they know about vote fraud in elections. (see the nice pic in the link below) Heck the Dems in Chicago know about vote fraud, so calling it a BS problem isn’t reality.




            • BlaiseP in reply to Scott says:

              Integrity is the province of those who vote, not the parties for which they vote.  While Tom might be correct in observing the oath-requiring is legal, any organization which requires such an oath to any political entity had better either issue me a gun and the legal authority of power of arrest or be a judge taking my testimony in a court of law.

              If GOP requires a loyalty oath it only serves to demonstrate their own bad faith.Report

              • Scott in reply to BlaiseP says:


                The paper is only a request or a reminder to have some integrity when folks vote or a request that they not try and manipulate the system.  Sadly these days folks have to be reminded to be honest. Clearly some folks here seem to think that if an action is not illegal it must be ok.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Scott says:

                It is more than a reminder, it is an oath.   It is not a request or a reminder.   To say so is a lie.  He who will not take that oath may not vote in the GOP primary.   End of story.

                I am fascinated by the notion of loyalty in the GOP.   It clearly trumps all other virtues, including honesty.Report

              • Scott in reply to BlaiseP says:


                According to what I’ve read,  the pledge (or loyalty oath if you want to make it sound sinister) has been approved by the Board of Elections, has no actual penalty and can’t be legally enforced.

                I think it was poorly worded but that is separate issue.

                “I am fascinated by the notion of loyalty in the GOP.   It clearly trumps all other virtues, including honesty.”

                If the above statement is true then I guess it puts the GOP in the same fine company with the Dems given their long history of party loyalty over honesty. (See the 1960 pres election, any Chicago election  and LBJ’s 1948 senate race, for starters.)Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Scott says:

                Bicameral poxation.  Save it for the rubes.  Won’t work on me.  An oath it is, and an obligation, a barrier to voting in the Virginia primary.Report

              • Nob Akimoto in reply to Scott says:

                As a former Chicago Democrat.

                Two words for you, Scott.

                Fuck you.Report

  6. James K says:

    I think there is one sense in which casting a vote is unethical: when you do so in ignorance.  Voting affects not just the voter, but everyone else in a society, and ignorant or irrational voting can cause bad policies to proliferate.  I think a voter has a moral obligation to put enough thought and research into their voting decision so that they have at least a basic understanding of the implications of the policies the various candidates are advocating.

    The other morally acceptable option would be not to vote.Report

    • Tod Kelly in reply to James K says:

      Then clearly the answer is to have a testing requirement prior to voting?

      My problem with this line of thinking is that, in my observation, people fall on a bell curve along the axes of “How Much People Know” and “How Much People Think They Know.”  On opposite ends of the spectrum are those that know literally nothing and are aware of it, and those that know quite a bit but have the wisdom to now that they don’t know anywhere close to everything they might about a subject.  A far greater number lie in the high arc, where they think they know far more than everybody else but aren’t actually that well informed.

      I remember reading a number of years ago a study that tested current event knowledge and confidence in current event knowledge based on where they got their news.  Those that got it from Talk Radio scored far higher than everyone else on confidence that they new the most, and far lower than everyone on what they actually knew.Report

    • Nob Akimoto in reply to James K says:

      I’m a bit disturbed at the implication of this argument. I know, resorting to slippery slope arguments is sloppy, but isn’t the basic point here then that actions with externalities shouldn’t be done without proper consideration of the externalities? In which case how much of human activity actually occurs in a realm that can be considered ethical?Report

  7. Tom Van Dyke says:

    RTod, Limbaugh listeners did as well as NPR’s, better than newspaper readers and CNN viewers, according to Pew.

    Yes, Fox News as a whole did poorly. As did the Today Show and The View and the morning like.  But O’Reilly viewers did nearly as well as PBS NewsHour’s and of course Stewart y Colbert, who did best.

    On the whole, a push, if you look at the full poll.  Another day, another puncture of the conventional wisdom.  ;-P


  8. Tod Kelly says:

    Tom, this is not the study to which I refer.  The one I am referencing is from the late 90s, and did not compare liberal/conservative sources.  It merely looked at medium: Talk Radio, News Radio, TV News, and Print News.  I will see if I can dig it up.Report

    • Tom Van Dyke in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      RTod, I’m sure that “study” says what you say it does, it’s cool.  There’s only so much you can get out of such abstractions, esp when the social science academy “proves” every week or month that conservatives are fucked up in the brain.

      The Pew thing is fairly clean and simple, and even if it were “proven” that liberals are 10% more likely to be psychotic [clearly obvious from our comments sections @ LoOG], the probative value of that is nil.Report

  9. James Hanley says:


    I’m with you in this minority.

    As to the effectiveness of strategic voting, it’s all a numbers game.  It would take phenomenal effort to organize enough strategic voters to game the system in an election as large as the Virgina primary.  It’s best reserved for office/church/social club politics, where you have smaller numbers so each vote is more influential.Report

    • isaac in reply to James Hanley says:

      I don’t see any reason such an effort would need any substantial organization….. if you think that you’re 1/100,000,000th of the electorate matters for getting who you want in the White House, why would you think it doesn’t matter for getting a week candidate the nomination for the opposition party?  Many independent actors could easily come up with the same idea/plan and execute their plans individually…….Report

  10. The Reason says:

    Hi Tod,

    I find your argument compelling and logical. Since the dawn of the American representative democracy…and likely long before…the balance of power has made a quick (and scientifically natural) progression to a two party system. The allure of the power of majority (even as a small segment of that majority) is too great for human being to pass up. Then, naturally, when power gets out of balance you see gravitational swings back to the former minority as single issue voters throw their weight back to whichever side they believe gives them the greatest opportunity to advance their own agenda.

    I accept your argument that it is not unethical to cast a vote against the more electable candidate, but I would say this because we exist in a two party system. The two party system long ago cast ethics aside so that participants can leverage whatever advantages they can find. The reason it is not unethical is because it is generally accepted warfare between both sides. The state party that is trying to hault this practice is simply attempting to retain the amount of power it has instead of letting that little bit trickle out as a nominal number of would-be saboteurs attempts to sway their election. 

    Do you ever watch the TV show “Survivor”? It’s a fascinating study of human behavior. They always split the competitors into two tribes at the beginning of the season. Many people would then believe that is why it always comes down to two alliances battling it out to the end until the dominant tribe is forced to cannibalize itself. However…the producers could just as easily split the group into 3 or 4 or 7 tribes to begin the show and at some point it would still be two groups battling againt one another. Why? Because there is power in numbers and everything else is superceded by that fact. People cross party lines, they align with people who share different values…they (gasp) compromise!

    My point is simply this: The two party system sucks. Our founding fathers feared factions and many attempted to divert the formation of super parties but their resistance we brief and weak as they too were sucked into the two party world. As long as this two party world exists we will continue to have party primaries and as long as we have two party primaries we will have to endure clowns attempting to sabotage their ‘enemy’. At the very least we can applaud these people for caring enough to do their part in making some kind of impact. In my opinion it is far, far better than the apathetic non-voters who believe the system has alienated them so they now refuse to participate.

    In this so-called democracy, you are right. The most valuable power we have as individuals is the right to cast our ballots as we see fit. Limiting our right to cast those votes as we see fit is unAmerican.Report

    • Patrick Cahalan in reply to The Reason says:

      The balance of power has made a quick (and scientifically natural) progression to a two party system. The allure of the power of majority (even as a small segment of that majority) is too great for human being to pass up.

      How does that explain parliamentary democracies?

      I don’t know how natural the phenomena is.  It’s seems to be at least partially structural.Report

      • The Reason in reply to Patrick Cahalan says:


        I must admit that my knowledge of foreign democracies is much more limited, but… based purely on my own observations…factions that rise to power eventually erode as small pieces break off to join the minority movement as it eventually grows large enough to overthrow them.

        Because of these obtuse observations (I should research but since I’m at work and only commenting rather than posting I will be a bit lazy here) I would claim that structure can limit this phenomenon but it does not actually create it.

        I would also argue that two party systems often emerge from parliamentary democracies, but would again need further research to back it up.