What Does Abstention from Voting Mean?

Many social systems rely on member participation to function properly. In democracies around the world, 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.

Withholding a vote can send a powerful message, but it can also result in significant consequences for both the voter and the system in which they participate. Because abstaining from voting can be so significant, it is important for voters to understand what abstaining is and what its implications are.

Abstention from Voting

When an individual has the ability to vote, but chooses not to do so, that individual is abstaining from voting. A voter may abstain from voting for many reasons, e.g. they do not think they know enough about the issue at hand to make an informed decision, they believe voting on a particular issue represents a conflict of interests, they are withholding their vote in protest, etc.

For example, at various points throughout the Brexit process, parties have used abstentions to move/block measures and legislation. This tactical use of abstention can be a valuable political tool, though it can come with risks such as other parties passing legislation in spite of abstentions.

Although abstaining from a vote may seem straightforward, its implications and consequences can be significant. However, in order to understand the impact abstaining from a vote can have, one must understand the institution of voting, more generally.

Voting Institutions

When we talk about abstaining from voting, we are generally talking about votes cast within some form of democracy and/or some sort of deliberative body. Democracy is generally understood to be a form of government wherein the people possess the ability to choose the form of government.

The most popular form of democracy is known as a representative democracy. In a representative democracy, the citizens choose an individual to represent them in a particular governmental office, and that elected official performs the duties of the office. Some examples of representative democracies are:

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

When we talk about deliberative assemblies, we are talking about groups of individuals who gather to make decisions, usually on behalf of a larger group of individuals. Although most governmental 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
  • A company's board of directors

The primary resource for the practices of an official deliberative body is Robert's Rules of Order, which were written by U.S. Army officer Henry Martyn Robert and were first published in 1876. Since then, the Rules have been revised and updated, and they still serve as the primary set of rules parliamentary bodies follow.


Many deliberative bodies, whether they are governmental or not, rely on some form of majority or plurality to make decisions. These bodies often require a certain amount of body-members to be present in order to make a valid decision. When the deliberative body has enough members present to make a valid decision, that body has a quorum.

Within the quorum system, a member of the body may literally abstain from casting their vote, or they may practically abstain by voting both "yes" and "no," therefore canceling out the votes. Abstaining can be a way for a member to exercise responsibility, e.g. not voting due to a conflict of interest, or to protest an issue. Within a quorum, abstaining from a vote is effectively the same as voting "no."

Abstention from Voting in Elections

Just as a member of a quorum may abstain from a vote as a form of protest, voters can do the same in elections. In areas where voting is not mandatory, as the United States, abstaining from voting is often used 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 or not is their personal choice. What is important is that the voter understands their rights and how they can make the most of them in their respective situation. If citizens have questions regarding their voting rights, they may want to seek the assistance of a legal professional who specializes in these types of issues.

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