Right to vote = right to do wrong?

1 JANUARY 2003

It might be morally permissible to prevent uncommitted, or 'careless', voters from voting, according to a CSU academic.

CSU's Dr Piero MoraroIt might be morally permissible to prevent uncommitted, or ‘careless’, voters from voting, according to a Charles Sturt University (CSU) academic.
Dr Piero Moraro, lecturer in justice studies at the CSU School of Humanities and Social Sciences in Bathurst and a research fellow at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, will present a paper at the ‘Democratic Rights – Democratic Duties’ academic roundtable he has convened on Wednesday 3 and Thursday 4 July at the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture in Canberra.
“While I am indirectly criticising Australia’s compulsory voting system, this is meant to be an argument in favour of democracy, not against it,” Dr Moraro said. “What I aim to do is to invite reflection about what rights we have as citizens, and what these rights mean.
“When we are asked to describe what democracy is about, we mention universal suffrage as its defining character. We deem the denial of the right to vote to be the utmost violation of democratic ideals. That is, others should never prevent a citizen (of age, sound mind, etc) from voting, for he or she has the right to vote.
“According to a standard account of rights, when one has a right others have duties; for example, my right to free speech imposes duties on others not to prevent me from expressing my view.
“Having a right to something also means that what I have a right to do is morally permissible. I don’t have the right to physically abuse people, because abusing people is wrong. I don’t have a right to use my money to bribe judges, because bribery is wrong. If we have a right to vote, then, voting must not be morally wrong.
“However, recent work in the ethics of voting has pointed out that there are cases in which voting is morally wrong. Voting for a bad candidate, such as a racist party, for example, is morally wrong. Nevertheless, one has the right to do so. The right to vote is, therefore, a right to do wrong; it differs from other rights, because while it still imposes duties on others, it involves actions that may be morally wrong.”
Dr Moraro argues in his paper that citizens who vote in a careless way are also doing something morally wrong. Their careless votes might end up supporting bad candidates, who will in turn cause harm to the country through bad governance.
“I draw a distinction between careless voters, that I call ‘uncommitted voters’, and ‘committed voters’. The latter, but not the former, are willing to spend some time and energy to gather information concerning the candidates, their policies, and the effects these policies will have on others,” he said.
“Applying some principles from the theory of self-defence, I claim that it might be morally permissible to prevent uncommitted voters from voting, as they expose others to the risk of harm, and they do so carelessly, which gives others an opposing right to stop them in order to avert the danger. Their carelessness makes them morally culpable, which in turn reduces their claim against interference from others.”

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