Issue 19 of The Voluntaryist, dated June 1986, begins with the feature article “Legitimacy and Elections.” This piece, written by Theodore J. Lowi, a professor at Cornell University, was originally published in The Baltimore Sun.
The current event trigger for this article was Ferdinand Marcos’ struggle to maintain his power in the Philippines. He desperately needed legitimacy. But what does legitimacy mean? Here’s what Mr. Lowi has to say about it:
“First of all, legitimacy is not mere popularity, although popularity helps. Legitimacy is not mere acceptance; acceptance is an outcome of legitimacy. Legitimacy is not the mere absence of disorder, although the presence of disorder can be taken as an indication of illegitimacy. And legitimacy is not the same as goodness or virtue, but that does point us in the right direction: Legitimacy is the next best thing to being good or virtuous. Legitimacy is the appearance of goodness.
In government, legitimacy is the establishment among the people of a sense of consistency between government actions and some higher principles that the people already accept. Because appearing to be good is easier to accomplish than being good, we tend to speak of legitimacy rather than of goodness in government.”
I’ve been thinking about this idea of goodness in relation to legitimacy and voting and it does help explain beliefs surrounding the idea of voting. People who vote are considered “good.” They are “good” people, performing their “civic duty” by this form of participation in government which of course means that the government they vote for must also be "good." No one who votes could ever think of the government as something "bad."
Many don’t want felons, the “bad” people, to be able to vote. This makes sense because that would dilute the appearance of the goodness of it all.
However, there have been moves in states to change this and give felons the right to vote. Why do you think government officials are willing to do this? Certainly it means more people available to bribe in order to get more votes in general for any individual candidate, but could it also be the need to keep the voting numbers up in order to keep up the appearance of legitimacy?
Then we have more "bad" people, the nonvoters. They are very troublesome to those who want to maintain our government’s legitimacy which is why we see “get out the vote” campaigns. Presenting the message that it doesn’t matter who you vote for just as long as you vote is a clear attempt to maintain legitimacy. (There are many people who say this who don’t really think too much about it though, they are just being the “good” citizen and parroting the message.)
There is one voting option that I don’t think the rulers would ever go for though, even if it creates more voters and that is a “none of the above” option. That would just careen too close to the cliff of losing legitimacy. I’m sure it would scare the bejeezus out of them to have a “none of the above” option after doing a strong get out the vote campaign.
Of course the push to get nonvoters to vote doesn't work on everyone so government supporters still have to figure out what to say about them so they are automatically considered to be apathetic. Apathy is an important characteristic to attach to these folks because it implies that they are willing to accept any of the candidates and this gets us right back to legitimacy.
This is why I think it’s important for those who don’t vote for principled reasons to say so. I will no longer voluntarily trudge down to the voting booth because I don’t want to legitimize a system that depends on the acceptance of the initiation of force upon my neighbors.
To me, that’s just not a “good” thing to do at all.