The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines democracy as “a method of group decision making characterized by a kind of equality among the participants.” In effect, democracy can be a useful mechanism for making collective decisions. For instance, an association representing the homeowners of a residential community can make the decision of renovating the pavement of a street after obtaining the explicit consent of a majority of them.
If we apply the above definition to a country, democracy could be described as a political system in which collective decisions are made by the citizens of the country, who exercise their right to participate in the decision-making process mainly in two ways: directly (via referenda) or indirectly (via the election of representatives).
The virtues and flaws of the democratic approach to collective decision making should be independent of the size of the community where decisions are made. If we agree that voting is a legitimate way to decide collectively about those aspects affecting a small community, we should also accept democracy as a tool to make collective decisions that concern the citizens of a country.
But can decision making in a small community be compared to that in a large country? When the homeowners of a neighborhood vote about whether to improve the lighting of common areas, they are deciding about how to dispose of their commonly-owned private property. Of course, some neighbors might get disappointed if the results go against their interests, but no one would question the right of the community to make such a decision.
Voting in a general election is substantially different. When you vote in, say, a parliamentary election, you aren’t just deciding about things that directly or indirectly affect you: you are imposing your political agenda on others, with the potential impact on individual liberties that your decision may have.
This is because the scope of decision of a government (that is, the decisions that it can make on your behalf) is infinitely wider than that of the governance body of a small community. Imagine that, among other proposals, your candidate promises to ban the use of medical marihuana. If you vote for her, you’re not just participating in a shared decision-making process that concerns you: you’re limiting other people’s freedom in a blatant manner.
Hence, the comparison between democracy in a small community and in a country is misleading: whereas the former is a useful tool to make collective decisions, the second often results in the erosion of other people’s rights. The alternative is, of course, abstention: the refusal to participate in elections.
You might think that, although compelling, the above argument has little practical relevance. As a utilitarian, I agree. If voting helps elect a candidate that promises to implement policies that you deem positive for your interests or your country, why shouldn’t you do it? After all, there are times when we are forced to be pragmatic, especially if not voting could result in the election of tyrant.
The problem with this view is that it doesn’t take into account that one vote is mathematically irrelevant: the probability that your vote will have a decisive influence on the results of, for instance, a national election is nearly zero. In fact, from a purely consequentialist perspective, the rational thing to do would be to abstain from voting.
A common objection to this argument is that one vote might be worthless, but the sum of many single votes can impact the outcome of an election. Unfortunately, this reasoning overlooks the fact that you’re only responsible for your vote. You might be able to convince a few friends and followers to vote for your candidate, but the likelihood that those votes will be decisive would still be close to zero.
For some, voting shouldn’t just be considered a means to make collective decisions, but a civic duty of all citizens. This implies that, if you don’t show up at the polls on election or referendum day, you’re somehow failing to fulfill one of your responsibilities as a citizen of a democratic society as you are refusing to take part in making decisions that concern the country as a whole. Is voting really a civic duty? Of course, it depends on what we understand by civic duty. But I doubt that many people consider a civic duty to impose one’s views on the rest of the population. In this sense, the civic duty of any citizen wouldn’t be to vote, but to abstain from voting.
This doesn’t mean that voting is never justified. The above argument against voting is more difficult to sustain if you’re voting for a party that advocates expanding liberties rather than restricting them (in practice this is hardly ever the case). Also, voting can be seen as a symbolic act against tyranny. For instance, a vote against Pinochet in 1988 was interpreted at the time as a vindication of civil liberties against oppression. Yet, in countries where elections are rigged, the act of voting can also send the opposite signal: an implicit endorsement of a corrupt political system.
Benjamin Franklin used to say that democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. The reality is a bit different: there are so many wolves and lambs going to vote that the best thing a single wolf or lamb can do is to stay at home doing something more productive.