The bad arguments for voting often come in the form of pithy one-liners: “Bad Officials Are Elected By Good Citizens Who Don’t Vote.” Sometimes they are openly manipulative: “Vote: It’s Your Children’s Future!” Sometimes they are just mundane: “Make Your Vote Count!” And then, sometimes, one comes along that is downright threatening, like this one: “If You Don’t Vote, You Lose Your Right To Complain!”
Let’s pause a moment to analyze the last of these slogans. Yes, it sounds good on the surface, but there are some presuppositions hidden in it. For example, it only makes sense if you are already immersed in election culture and have accepted the rules of the game. Only willing participants lose their right to complain when the process in which they agreed to participate does not go their way. If you choose not to vote because you have consciously rejected the rules of the game, this reasoning doesn’t apply to you.
If we really stop to give it some thought, it seems that the opposite is more true. It isn’t the non-voter who forfeits their right to complain–it is the voter who forfeits theirs. What I mean is, if you vote, then by voting you have implicitly agreed to the rules, implicitly legitimizing the process itself. This agreement naturally brings with it the understanding that you will accept the outcome regardless of whether it is pleasing to you. Just as, in a game of basketball, by agreeing to play you have agreed that whoever scores the most points will be the winner. Morally speaking, if you accepted those rules and participated willingly in the process, then you are the one who has no business complaining if the outcome is not what you wanted. If you voted, you must live with the outcome of the process, and you must not complain about it. We, on the other hand, who rejected the process, are fully entitled to our criticisms.
If that still doesn’t make sense, let me use an illustration:
Imagine someone asks you to play Russian roulette. Now imagine that you say “yes.” By saying “yes,” you have accepted the rules of the game and its possible consequences. You have agreed to the possibility that you might get shot. You knew it could happen, and you chose to play anyway, presumably because you thought the possible benefits would be worth the risk. You decided to take the gamble. In the event that you do get shot, no one will sympathize with your complaints because it was you who willingly joined in on the event.
Now imagine that instead of saying “yes,” you said “absolutely not.” By saying this, you refused to submit yourself to the rules of the game. For whatever reason, you decided it just wasn’t worth it, or perhaps you simply decided that it was an immoral game from the start and you rejected in in principle as dangerous and evil. You, unlike the willing participants who play of their own volition, are not obligated to accept the outcome with resignation. This means that if you are standing nearby and you somehow get shot by the idiots who are playing, you have every right in the world to complain about it.
Hopefully it makes sense now. I don’t play Russian roulette, and I don’t vote, and I avoid both of these activities for almost exactly the same reason. I value my life, and those activities present a threat to it. If that sounds like an exaggeration, consider the fact that our government has the power to press its citizens into military service and then send them off to some other country in order to–you guessed it–get shot at. Still sound like an exaggeration?
Anyway, the point is this: If you accept the rules of the game and you play it, then you are the one with no business complaining about how it works out.