There are a variety of reasons you might vote for someone (or no one!) in a primary or an election (obviously, I write this as an American). Here are a few; perhaps you can think of others.
- I’m voting for someone because I believe he is the best person for the job
- I’m voting for someone because I believe he is relatively righteous and wise. I willingly designate or ratify him to act as as my representative in those decisions entrusted to him.
- I’m voting for someone because, among those candidates likely to win, he is the most acceptable or least unacceptable to me
- I am voting for no one, because in some way I believe the system itself is either unrighteous (e.g., too much power and privilege is arrogated to a particular office), or because in some other way the system has failed (two-party stranglehold, nomination process failure, etc.)
- I am voting for no one, because of the terrible cost-benefit ratio. My vote is unlikely to make a difference, and I can achieve more good by doing something else.
This is all complicated by the fact that voting is a prisoner’s dilemma. Perhaps you would gladly vote according to #1 or #2 as long as everyone else did, but if you expect most people to vote in terms of #3 there is a powerful temptation for you to do so as well. If you were the only person voting, then there would be some ethical obligation to vote in terms of #1 or #2. But since your vote is incredibly diluted, it becomes difficult to attach ethical imperatives to it. Individual votes are so unlikely to determine the outcome of elections that economists frequently describe voting as irrational, at least in terms of the goal of influencing an election outcome. As my friend Mark Horne insightfully observes with a reductio ad absurdum, if we have an ethical obligation to vote, then by implication we have a much greater ethical obligation to put up campaign signs in our yards, something that takes little effort but will have a greater effect on the election outcome.
I am convinced that as Christians we are free to vote according to any of the strategies above. Among these strategies, we do not have warrant to describe any as fundamentally unrighteous or evil, and we cannot bind each other’s consciences to any of them. Instead, we should consider these strategies in terms of wisdom and tactics. This is a matter for persuasion and not invective.
I understand the case for a lesser-of-two-evils strategy, and I have voted that way in the past for presidential elections. This year I am not, for several reasons. Although my vote is statistically unlikely to make any practical difference, I want to use it for its symbolic value. Chiefly, I see my vote as an opportunity to stand for righteousness and against unrighteousness. Obviously, I am speaking in terms of a relative human righteousness and not an absolute righteousness. But both presidential candidates are campaigning to perpetuate gross unrighteousness and foolishness, and voting for a third candidate is a way I can symbolically avoid “sitting with” or casting my lot with the wicked. Even though my vote makes no practical difference, it is still a privilege to participate in the process, and I hesitate to spend this privilege on an unrighteous candidate.
I also want my vote to send a more practical symbolic message. First, I believe that as a general rule, America needs to put the brakes on the growth of political power, and to experience a general shift in power from the national to the local level. By writing in an alternate candidate, I can express my belief that the presidential election should not matter as much as it is currently made out to be. Second, I want to send a message to the Republican party establishment, both that its nomination process is broken, and that I refuse to be taken for a fool. How many times should I be willing to believe false promises to deliver movement on abortion and limited government? I stand for righteousness and not for a party.
Would I prefer one of the two likely winners to the other? Probably. But rooting for a candidate does not require me to vote for him, any more than it requires me to deface my car’s bumper with his sticker. Additionally, I don’t feel confident in tracing out all of the implications of supposedly better and worse paths of unrighteousness and foolishness over the course of time. In the end, I will vote for righteousness but also pray for it, entrusting the outcome to God.
Perhaps you are unpersuaded and will vote for the lesser of two evils; you can do so in good conscience. Certainly, in any case, we have more important opportunities to make a bigger difference:
- We are to participate earnestly in the worship of the church, prayer and evangelism. This is the only means by which any enduring cultural change will come about.
- If you vote, research your local elections at least as diligently as the national ones.
- After the election, write your elected officials at all levels to advocate for righteousness.
Perhaps you have suggestions for my presidential write-in. I’ve not decided yet.
Jesus is king!