Zippy has raised the above question in a post on his blog. Over a year ago I had firmly intended to write a post on this topic to convince conservatives not to vote for Rudy Giuliani. As the Giuliani issue has become moot, I had thought that I would not write it after all. Now I learn to my horror that (as Maximos reported here) some pro-lifers who are strongly anti-war are talking about voting for, of all people, Barak Obama.
Now, to my mind, this idea is beneath contempt. That is, if we are talking about a voter who is truly pro-life as opposed to someone who makes sad noises about abortion while really thinking in his heart that war is at least as bad as or worse than the continual, deliberate, legal slaughter of the innocent. And because I think a "pro-life" argument for voting for the likes of Obama is beneath contempt, I've hesitated to write a post on the topic of voting lest it give unwarranted attention or support to such an idea.
However, I have to admit that the question of what a vote is is an interesting one, and since Zippy has brought it up in so many words, I am inclined to give my answer here and some arguments and intuition pumps to support that answer. So, as a first approximation...
A vote for a political candidate is, among other things, an act of endorsing that candidate for office. Symbolically, whether one agrees with all of a candidate's positions or not, a vote involves to at least some degree taking one's stand as being with or for that person.The position to which this statement is opposed is the position that a vote is merely a move in a political game which is to be evaluated solely on the basis of expected consequences. On this view contrary to mine, it might be moral to vote for a candidate who was a moral monster if one were convinced that, through some convoluted set of circumstances, his election would have positive consequences, or even just more positive consequences than the election of his rival.
My first argument for my own position is the nature of democracy, including representative democracy. The whole point of having the people vote for candidates is that these candidates stand for the people. By means of voting for their rulers, the people are exercising an influence on their own governance.
The immediate response will be that ours is not a direct democracy but a representative one and that politicians are not robots doing whatever their constituents want or even carrying out campaign promises, that they are real people who are elected to make what they think are the best decisions in concrete circumstances. But I respond that these points only serve to make my position stronger. If one viewed politicians simply as robots who are to do the will of the people, one could argue that a moral monster would have to be restrained by the opinions of his constituents and that it was morally licit to vote for him since the real rulers are the people themselves, who are (let us say) less monstrous than he and who will be ruling themselves "through" him. And if one viewed voting solely as an act of selecting the candidate with the best campaign promises, then one could argue that some given moral monster had promised not to act--or not to act fully or consistently--on his monstrous premises, and that it was therefore all right to vote for him. But if politicians as persons stand for the voters, and especially for the voters that have elected them, then those who vote for them cannot in these ways entirely disassociate themselves from their chosen candidate's views and character. You did not vote for a robot or merely for a pre-specified package deal. You voted for a person. You said "aye" to that person, knowing who he was, what he believed, and what he stood for. You are therefore in some measure associated with that person.
I don't mean to imply that campaign promises are unimportant. For one thing, I haven't said that the likely consequences of a candidate's election are irrelevant, only that they are not the only relevant consideration. For another thing, under normal circumstances a candidate's campaign promises do help you to know what sort of candidate he is--what he stands for--and therefore what sort of elected official you are choosing to stand for you if you vote for him.
My second set of arguments, all related, are intuition pumps connecting the idea of voting for a bad candidate to the notion of shame. The premise that lies behind these intuition pumps is the simple one that you should not do anything, even in private, that you are truly ashamed of. You might, of course, not tell others about things you have done in private simply because they are private sorts of thing, because they are not those other people's business, or even because someone else has (in your opinion) a false idea of right and wrong, and you do not want to distress him or strain your relationship unnecessarily. So, for example, someone with teetotal relatives might hide the wine bottles when the relatives show up in order to avoid conflict or causing pain. But this is not, or needn't be, because he is actually ashamed of the fact that he sometimes drinks alcoholic beverages. On the other hand, a person who looks at pornography and hides the pornography does so (probably, indeed hopefully) because in his heart he still knows that what he is doing is wrong, and he is ashamed of it.
Consider then the question of how you would justify to an intelligent child your decision to vote for a person who stands for morally appalling positions. Children, in my experience, understand pretty well that voting for someone is endorsing him. Children like to be involved in life; they like rooting for their baseball team or for a horse in the Kentucky Derby. In many ways they are natural-born partisans. And, if they live in a politically aware household, they carry the same desire to root for someone into the political realm and look to their parents and to the adults around them to help them decide whom they should root for in politics. They want to know who "our" candidate is, and they understand that if Mom or Dad votes for someone, that person is Mom's or Dad's candidate. Now imagine trying to explain to an intelligent seven-year-old why you have decided to vote for, say, Hitler for President. Suppose you were entirely honest and explained his advocacy of a genocidal final solution for Jews. It seems to me that you should be enormously embarrassed in the course of trying to explain that it is all right to vote for such a man because you have cannily figured out that you can, surprisingly enough, bring about some sort of good consequences by doing so, or even that his opponent is worse.
Some people think that the secrecy of the ballot means that you can vote for a moral monster and that you don't have to worry about how you would explain this to an innocent child or what it would look like if you advertised your action. After all, they say, that's the whole point of our having a secret ballot. But I say that that is not the point of the secret ballot. The secret ballot is supposed to protect people from threats, coercion, and even from psychological pressure from those who might not have the same moral insights as the individual voter. The secret ballot is important and in my opinion certainly should not be undermined, but it is not supposed to protect the voter from the voice of conscience that he might hear by thinking of how ashamed he would be if people knew he had voted for a person he knows to be bad.
Consider, too, the continuity of various means of support for a candidate. Voting is one way of trying to get the person elected. Presumably that’s why you vote for him. But so are yard signs. I can perhaps imagine circumstances in which one wouldn’t have a yard sign for someone one would vote for, but there had better not be a big gap there. That is, the candidate had better not be someone so bad that you would be horrified if there were a yard sign in your yard for him. The point here is that putting up a yard sign, like voting, is a way of supporting a candidate, of standing with him and using your efforts to help him get elected. You should not do that if you would be ashamed to have anyone know that you had done so. So if you would be rightly horrified to find a "Vote for Hitler" yard sign in your front yard, you may not vote for Hitler.
We can see the same point from a slightly different angle if we consider other ways of helping a candidate's campaign. Suppose campaign laws allowed you to contribute money anonymously. Would you do that for a bad candidate, on the same considerations that lead you to vote for him, if you had the money to spare? It would be done secretly. What about stuffing envelopes behind the scenes or going out at night and putting up signs along highways? We ought to see the counterintuitiveness of trying, working, putting out some sort of effort, in the service of a monster’s being elected. There is something wrong with this, and we can see it from the fact that if one put out such effort anonymously and it were discovered, one would be ashamed. And putting out effort to get him elected is what voting for him is doing, even if voting by itself is only a small amount of effort.
Symbolic actions are important. They have importance in themselves, beyond their possible or probable consequences. And voting is a paradigmatic case of a symbolic action. You give your "aye," your "let it be so," to a candidate. You take your stand for him. You put your mark beside his name, and you choose him to lead. If you do this knowing full well that he advocates appalling atrocities, you cannot disassociate yourself from those atrocities by treating your vote as something other than what it is.