The Library Basement
Reading under ground

Electing Not to Vote (6): Todd David Whitmore

This is the sixth in my series of interactions with the essays collected in Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting. Todd David Whitmore provides an essay entitled “When the Lesser Evil is Not Good Enough: The Catholic Case for Not Voting.” Whitmore opens by describing the general Catholic teaching on the subject.  Voting is a duty (not only a right) which grows out of our responsibility as Christians to work for the common good in our societies.  Therefore Vatican II and the meeting of the American Catholic bishops in 2003 affirm that Catholics, as a rule, should vote as a part of their responsible citizenship.  Whitmore finds this duty problematic, however, and he wonders:

What is a "faithful citizen" to do if all the viable candidates in a particular election are not simply wrong on this or that policy but are so egregiously in error from a moral as well as political standpoint that one cannot in good conscience vote for any of them? (64)

I am intrigued by his inclusion of the term "viable" here.  There is nothing about a candidate which intrinsically makes him or her viable (except perhaps ballot access).  I believe that a good showing by "third party" candidates would have a positive effect on the electoral process in the US.  The lack of consideration of third-party candidates is a weakness both in this essay and in the collection altogether. Whitmore's basic thesis is that sometimes the common good (i.e. the Christian's civic duty) is better served by choosing not to vote for principled reasons.

From here he goes on the describe why he could not conscionably vote in 2004 because of problems with both President Bush and Senator Kerry. Whitmore indicts Bush both for the war against Iraq and for domestic economic policies.  His basic criticism on Iraq is that the war violates virtually every tenet of classic Catholic "just war" tradition regarding entering a war.  I whole-heartedly agree.  Dressing up a preventative war (or plain old invasion) as a "just war" strains credulity to the breaking point.

On the economic front, Whitmore argues that Bush's tax policies are unjust, because an increase of worker productivity during his presidency has not been met with an increase in wealth for the middle class, but instead an increase of wealth for corporations and the very rich.  I personally less concerned with economic policies, but Whitmore makes an interesting point. Against Kerry, Whitmore brings charges of being just as bad on the war, supporting abortion, and changing his positions for political advantage (the "flip-flop").  Kerry did, in fact, vote to authorize military action in Iraq, but later recounted on the basis of having been deceived by bad evidence.  Just war, however, does not allow for the Iraq war even in the case of Weapons of Mass Destruction (or whatever the justification of the day may be).  On abortion, Kerry held the incredibly problematic position that he thought abortion was morally wrong personally, but he did not think it should be illegal.  This is especially disconcerting since he believes life begins at conception!  At any rate, these two issues and Kerry's waffling on them were enough to disqualify him in Whitmore's estimation (and I agree).

Acknowledging that no candidate is likely to pass Catholic muster, Whitmore proposes a rubric for deciding when not to vote: "is the distance between Catholic teaching and the candidate nearest to it greater than the distance between the candidates?"  If yes, then it may be appropriate to not vote.  Understanding "distance" is complicated in my estimation, but I am sympathetic to his point.  Sometimes the candidates differ slightly from each other (e.g. on war) but differ greatly from Christian tradition. Whitmore also complains about the Electoral College.  Once again, I must note that most people have a misplaced disdain for the EC.  If one does not like how a state apportions its electors, one should take it up with the state legislature.  If one does not like the idea of electors, one should push for a change in electoral law.

At any rate, I do not think the electoral college is a sufficient reason to not vote, at least from a Christian perspective.  One could perhaps abstain from voting out of a desire that one's state would abolish the popular vote in favor of some alternative form of apportionment (that is another story, though). Whitmore concludes that the decision to not vote based on Christian principles must be evaluated each election.  Voting, as he noted at the outset, is ideally a Christian duty.  This is also his justification for not considering write-ins or third-parties, who have little viability at the moment, though that may change in the future.  Here I have the question the underlying assumption that one must vote only for a candiate who can win.  I think a principled, public vote for someone who has a very small chance of winning (and perhaps is only on the ballot in a few states) can have just as much or more meaning as a non-vote.

Ultimately I agree with Whitmore's primary point: sometimes there will be no acceptable candidates from the standpoint of Christian teaching.  That has no doubt been true many times (this of course depends on one's stream within Christian teaching - many evangelicals had no problem with Bush).  This however leads to another question (which I hope to explore later): what is the ethical meaning of voting?  By voting for someone, am I necessarily endorsing that person's positions?  Or can I vote for whatever reasons I choose (for instance, to show my anger over how someone voted on the war or the bailout)?  That is an important consideration.