What Does Abstention from Voting Mean?

Abstention from voting is when a registered voter chooses not to take part in an election. Withholding your vote can send a powerful message, but it can also have significant consequences for the voter and the political system.

Many social systems rely on member participation to function properly. In democracies worldwide, member participation takes the form of voting in elections and other deliberative assemblies. Participants in democracies generally communicate by voting, but they also communicate by abstention from voting.

Because voter abstention is a powerful tool, you should understand what abstaining is and its implications.

Abstention from Voting

By law, most citizens have the right to vote. Some say that voting is a civic duty. When someone can vote but chooses not to, they abstain from voting. A person may abstain for many reasons. They may not know enough about the issue to make an informed decision. Or they may believe casting an affirmative vote represents a conflict of interests. Other people abstain in protest.

For example, during the Brexit process in the United Kingdom, parties have used abstentions to block measures or legislation they don't support. This tactical abstention is a valuable political tool. Of course, it comes with risks. Legislation may pass despite abstentions.

Although abstaining from a vote may seem straightforward, its implications and consequences are significant. To understand the impact abstention can have, you must understand the institution of voting.

Voting Institutions

When discussing abstaining from voting, we mean votes cast (or not cast) within a democracy. Democracy is a form of government where the people can choose the form of government. They also have the power to choose the people who control the democratic process.


The most popular form of democracy is a representative democracy. In a representative democracy, voters choose a person to represent them in a particular governmental office. The elected official performs the duties of the office.

Some examples of countries with representative democracies include:

  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Canada
  • Norway
  • Brazil

In representative democracies, it's not always the candidate with the majority vote who wins an election. The United States, for example, uses the electoral college system.

Deliberative Assemblies

A deliberative assembly is a group of people who gather to make decisions, usually on behalf of a larger group of people. Although most governing bodies in a democracy are deliberative assemblies, not all deliberative assemblies are governmental bodies.

Some examples of deliberative bodies are:

  • U.S. Congress
  • U.K. Parliament
  • City councils
  • A company's board of directors

The primary resource for the practices of an official deliberative body is Robert's Rules of Order, written by U.S. Army officer Henry Martyn Robert and first published in 1876. These rules specifically apply to parliamentary procedure.

Since then, experts have updated and revised the Rules. They still serve as the primary set of rules parliamentary bodies follow.


Many deliberative bodies rely on a simple majority or plurality to make decisions. Some require a two-thirds majority to carry legislation. It depends on what the body needs to make a valid decision. When the deliberative body has enough members present to make a valid decision, that body has a quorum.

Before any vote, the body takes a roll call vote. It tallies the positive and negative votes. They also document abstain votes and recusals. This is how they determine the voting result.

Within the quorum system, a member of the body may engage in active abstention from casting their vote, or they may practically abstain by voting "yes" and "no." In practical abstention, the votes cancel each other out.

Abstaining is a way for a member to exercise responsibility. This could be not voting due to a conflict of interest or protesting an issue. Within a quorum, abstaining from a vote is effectively the same as voting "no."

Abstention from Voting in Elections

Just as a quorum member may abstain from voting in protest, voters can do the same thing in elections. Abstaining from voting is often a way to show dissatisfaction with the available candidates. In areas where voting is compulsory, like Australia, abstaining from voting is a much more active form of protest.

Whether a voter decides to abstain from voting is their personal choice. The voter should understand their rights and how to make the most of them in their situation. If citizens have questions about their voting rights, they may want to seek the help of a legal professional specializing in these issues.

You Don't Have To Solve This on Your Own — Get a Lawyer's Help

Contact a civil rights lawyer if you aren't sure about your rights to abstain from voting. Your attorney will clarify what rights you have. They'll also help if you believe someone has violated your right to vote (or not vote.)

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