Why ‘Vote Your Conscience’ Is Flawed Advice

“Vote your conscience.”

I have heard this adage repeated with great regularity in political discourse. It is most often issued as advice to young and undecided voters – those who are “on the fence,” so to speak. And while I do not doubt that those who issue this advice may be doing so benignly, I strongly encourage them to reconsider just the shallowness of those words.

Imagine being given a question on a standard multiple-choice exam with four possible answers. However, by processes of your own reasoning, you were able to eliminate two of the four options. Imagine, then, that you were offered a “lifeline,” which allows you to consult with your teacher only once for advice on selecting the best answer of the two viable options. Would you not be offended if this teacher’s only advice to you is to “select with your conscience”?

Many may take objection to my analogy, and rightfully so. It is, in a sense, incongruous to compare the voting process to responding to a multiple-choice question. After all, in a true multiple-choice question it is understood that each choice is equally plausible. The same cannot be said about the voting process. If I were to use this analogy, I would first have to assume that elections are fair playgrounds.

I sadly cannot hold this assumption to be true. In any election, there will be clear outsiders who have much lower chances of winning. It is simply pretension that some names are placed on the ballot for the sake of appearances only. Whether those outsiders are disadvantaged because they lack the political resource to be true contenders or because they hold unpopular views, the truth of the matter still remains: They are outsiders and not equal players on the playground.

Another factor leading to this imbalance is the ‘flocking’ that usually occurs during elections. In life, people prefer to associate with (or flock to) winners. The larger the flock, the more likely the candidate is to attract followers. These followers may even be outsiders who were once contenders.

In theory, voting is a declaration of individualism and self-expression. In reality, it is a deliberate act that is best described as placing one’s penny in the right jar. In theory, voting is conscience-driven. In practice, it is very much group-driven. This glaring discrepancy between what voting should be and the reality is the source of much voter frustration and cynicism.

My first quarrel with telling people to vote their conscience is that it seems so detached from reality that it appears almost nonsensical. In fact, I’m tempted to believe that those giving this lackluster advice are doing so evasively. It is a nice, easy answer that shifts the full burden of responsibility to the one receiving the advice. This is the case in the example I provided above, in which the teacher, in a very subtle, devious way, tasks the test-taker with finding the answer. This response from the teacher chides and befuddles the test-taker more than it helps. If such is the case, one is better off not seeking the advice in the first place.

Finally, I take offense with the assertion implicit in the phrase “vote your conscience.” I find it quite condescending, actually. Never is the question asked “what if your conscience is wrong?” In real life, people make informed decisions based on the facts available and the options presented to them. Many of us are misled in good faith. Plenty of us have regretted occasions when we have acted purely on our gut instincts. Human beings are Homo sapiens, “wise men,” beings of sapience and sentience that act not just in good conscience but with good reason.

I completely understand why some people are quick to tell others to vote their conscience. It is, in less-offensive terms, another way of saying “make up your own mind.” It upholds the delusion that voting is the only decision one makes in which reason is subsidiary to conscience. It is in keeping with the false notion that elections are fair playgrounds where each player is equal in stature and each vote is equal in measure, while at the same time renouncing the unpleasant pennies-in-a-jar view of the voting process.

I find this advice particularly appalling when used to discolor the attitudes of our young voters who may already be estranged from the voting process. Young people are not unreasonable or foolish, they just need informed advice. And if we want to give our young citizens good advice, let’s not talk in abstractions by telling them offhandedly to “vote their conscience.”