First, I want to encourage you to vote today if you have not already sent in a ballot, voted early, or otherwise participated. I sent in my ballot a couple of weeks ago.
It is an incredible privilege to have the right to vote. And while we enjoy this privilege as a right, it is also, perhaps more precisely in the context of citizenship, a responsibility we exercise, not unlike jury duty.
In many contexts in our society, we have a vote. As a part of my Homeowner’s Association recently, I exercised my right to vote to elect board members to the Association’s governing body. As an Elder at my church for several years, I had a vote in governance issues for the nonprofit religious organization to which members of our congregation belong. And as the sole member of my Firm, I have the deciding vote on all of the business operations of my company.
One of the interesting thing about a vote is that it is not only a statement in favor of something, it is also a statement against other alternatives. Often times, a refusal to vote, an abstention, is not simply a refusal to support, but a refusal to reject. For example, in the context of a Board of Directors governing a corporation, Directors have an obligation to specifically dissent and oppose a position with which they disagree. Accordingly, Directors can be held responsible for a bad position being taken, even when they simply refuse to vote. In such situations, an abstention is deference to the decision being made.
Exemplifying this is Dietrich Bonhoeffer who was a Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany who opposed the Nazi regime and was eventually executed just before the war was ended. He asserted that silence in the face of evil is evil itself. He asserted that not speaking was a form of speech, and not acting was an act itself.
The law recognizes this principle. While one can clearly get into trouble for affirmatively acting negligently or criminally, one can also get into trouble by refusing to act when they have a duty to do so. The real question becomes whether we have a duty to act. When one is on a Board of Directors, it is pretty clear that they generally have a duty (to the shareholders or constituents) to vote by virtue of the office held (unless there is a legitimate conflict of interest where other principles come into play). Because there is a duty, the failure to vote does not absolve one of responsibility for the results.
The ability to vote in a general election is unique in that the duty is to ourselves, and each other, as citizens. And I submit that this is not the same as self-interest in a vacuum. Rather, in this context, to vote, or not vote, as if we are the only one who matters, is arguably a breach of the duty we have to each other as citizens. We have entrusted each other with a vote that will effect all of us, and we are all counting on each other to vote, one way or the other, for all of us. So get out there and take a position, whether it ends up being for the winner, or a statement of dissent the winner should seriously take into consideration when they take take office.