We humans are adversarial beings, easily riled by us‐versus‐them conflict. (Even Canadians!) Democratic politics is a wonderful way to peacefully channel social antagonism into ritual symbolic warfare. High voter turnout is as likely to reflect angry social division as it is to augur the reign of Kumbaya social cohesion.
Indeed, lower levels of turnout may suggest that voters actually trust each other more — that fewer feel an urgent need to vote defensively, to guard against competing interests or ideologies. Is it really all that bad if a broad swath of voters, relatively happy with the status quo, sit it out from a decided lack of pique?
Moreover, if you want to be civic‐minded, your duty isn’t to fill in ballots just to fill in ballots. You shouldn’t do it in ignorance, out of emotion, or to win approval from your political friends. Your duty is to vote well — to participate in a way that, at the very least, makes the outcome no worse.
Everybody has an incontestable and absolute right to his or her vote, but that doesn’t mean it’s always right to vote. Abstaining can be a way of looking after the public good, too. Not all of us have the energy, inclination, or opportunity to learn what we need to know in order to vote well. And that’s OK. There’s more to public‐spiritedness than showing up at the polls. You can run a small business or coach a kids’ hockey team with the common good in mind. That’s an expression of civic virtue, too.
The virtue of opting out is especially clear once you grasp that more voting isn’t necessarily better voting. Specialists in public opinion have exhaustively documented the average voter’s shocking ignorance about the main issues of the day, the names of their local candidates for office, or the policies the candidates support.
The flakiest voters — the ones least motivated to show up at the polls year in and year out — also tend to be most poorly informed. So when turnout drops, it tends to leave the pool of remaining voters with an improved average level of political knowledge and policy know‐how. If well‐informed voters have a better picture of the candidate or party most likely to promote the general welfare, then especially high turnout can actually tilt an election away from the better choice, leaving everyone a bit worse off. And that’s not very civic‐minded.