I confess to being surprised at the number of people who continue to equate conscientious abstention from voting for the top of either the Democratic or Republican ticket with "just not voting" or "copping out." In a continuing effort to clarify the point and nature of conscientious abstention, it may help to compare it to its cousin-concept, conscientious objection.
Conscientious objection is a specific practice that can be used by those who object to participating in war. Here is how the U.S. Selective Service describes it (emphases added):
A conscientious objector is one who is opposed to serving in the armed forces and/or bearing arms on the grounds of moral or religious principles.
"HOW TO APPLY
In general, once a man gets a notice that he has been found qualified for military service, he has the opportunity to make a claim for classification as a conscientious objector (CO). A registrant making a claim for Conscientious Objection is required to appear before his local board to explain his beliefs.
"He may provide written documentation or include personal appearances by people he knows who can attest to his claims. His written statement might explain:
- how he arrived at his beliefs; and
- the influence his beliefs have had on how he lives his life.
"A man may appeal a Local Board's decision to a Selective Service District Appeal Board. If the Appeal Board also denies his claim, but the vote is not unanimous, he may further appeal the decision to the National Appeal Board. [...]
Beliefs which qualify a registrant for CO status may be religious in nature, but don't have to be. Beliefs may be moral or ethical; however, a man's reasons for not wanting to participate in a war must not be based on politics, expediency, or self-interest. In general, the man's lifestyle prior to making his claim must reflect his current claims."
If a man qualifies as a CO, he is not exempted from service. Again, from the U.S. Selective Service (emphases added):
Conscientious Objectors opposed to serving in the military will be placed in the Selective Service Alternative Service Program. This program attempts to match COs with local employers. Many types of jobs are available, however the job must be deemed to make a meaningful contribution to the maintenance of the national health, safety, and interest. Examples of Alternative Service are jobs in:
- caring for the very young or very old
- health care
Some very important things to notice about conscientious objection to military service: First, it is a position that must taken reflectively and be consistent with a person's overall ethics and life practices. Second, conscientiously objecting is not the equivalent of draft-dodging or civil disobedience. Third, conscientious objection is a matter of personal conscience and integrity; not enough people want to or could qualify as COs to prevent all wars or even a particular war. Fourth, the objection in question is to using weapons or participating in war, not to serving one's country.
The obvious difference between conscientious objection to military service and conscientious objection to casting a ballot for either major party candidate is that when it comes to voting we have no system of review boards for vetting the bona fides of a conscientious abstainer.
But in many other ways, a decision to become a CA (a conscientious abstainer) resembles the decision to register as a CO.
A CA differs from the person who simply cannot be bothered to vote or is indifferent to voting or indifferent to the outcome of a particular election. Like a CO, a CA chooses not to participate in a particular practice because of systemic objection to it. The practice in question for CA is active affirmation of one major party candidate over another when the CA has an ethical conviction that neither candidate merits the office in question. The CA does not advocate civil disobedience or boycotting of the entire process of voting. Indeed, it is precisely because the CA takes the values inherent in a truly free franchise - a system that does not make voting compulsory, let alone voting in a particular election or for a particular candidate compulsory -that the CA may well participate in the political process more actively and with more conscious commitment than a more casual voter. The CA may work hard for candidates in other races; may work hard for other political causes, especially those meant to ensure that CA itself is not a needed option in future elections, for by example working hard to reform the aspects of one or both major political parties which render either's Presidential candidate ethically unacceptable on a particular occasion. The CA is aware that the election, with a result, will occur regardless of the CA's alternative service. The CA can be involved in election protection efforts, making sure that those who do chose to affirmatively cast a ballot for one major candidate or the other have the opportunity to do so without duress and to make sure that ballots are securely recorded and properly tabulated.
Just as some COs are indignant or, so to speak, militant about their reasons for objecting to war or the use of weapons, some CAs act from indignation and with a militant attitude. A CO is neither weak-minded person nor namby-pamby. A CO chooses to situate himself differently toward war than either those who participate in it actively or those who evade the Selective Service process altogether. Likewise, a CA situates herself or himself differently toward a particular election than those who vote for a major party candidate on each line of a ballot and those who simply do not show up at the polls or opt out of political participation altogether.
Of course, some people scorn all COs, seeing them as people who allow others to do "the dirty work" while the CO avoids a variety of risks associated with military combat. So too will some people belittle all CAs for refusing to affirmatively assent to either of two options when others who are not necessarily thrilled with their choices find themselves unable to reconcile conscientious abstention with their other ethical beliefs and so cast a ballot they may be less than comfortable casting.
But just as scorning a CO does not constitute an argument against his reasons for opting out of military combat while accepting alternative service, belittling a CA does not refute her or his reasons for denying either major party candidate her or his vote while still embracing ongoing political participation.