Papers

The following is an overview of some of my papers. Please feel free to email me at lachlan.umbers@uwa.edu.au if you would like a copy of anything outlined below.

Compulsory Voting: A Defence
British Journal of Political Science, 50(4), 1307-1324.
Available, here.
Turnout is in decline in established democracies around the world. Where, in the mid-1800s, 70%- 80% of eligible voters regularly participated in US Presidential elections, turnout has averaged just 56% since 1972. Average turnout in general elections in the UK has fallen from 76.64% during the period 1945-1992, to 64.68% since 1997. Average turnout in Canadian federal elections has fallen from 74.52% during the period 1940-1979, to 62.5% since 2000. For most democrats, these numbers are a cause for alarm. Compulsory voting is among the most effective means of raising turnout. However, compulsory voting is also controversial. Most of us think that coercion may only be employed against the citizenry if it is backed by a justification of the right kind. Opponents of compulsory voting charge that no such justification is available. This paper resists this line of argument in two ways. First, I offer an argument from free-riding which, though gestured towards by others, and widely criticised, has yet to be defended in any depth. Second, I consider a range of objections to compulsory voting as such, arguing that none succeeds.

What’s Wrong with Vote Buying
Philosophical Studies, 177(2), 551-571.
Available, here.
Almost everyone would agree that vote buying is morally wrong, and that prohibitions on vote buying are morally justified. Yet, recently, several philosophers have argued that vote buying is morally permissible, and (in some cases) that it should be legally permitted. This paper begins by examining and criticising arguments that have been offered in defence of vote buying. I then go on to consider existing attempts to explain the wrongness of vote buying, arguing that none is wholly successful. I then advance a novel account of the wrongness of vote buying. Vote buying is objectionable, I argue, because it involves a failure of respect for one’s fellow citizens as autonomous agents. I also consider the implications of my account for a number of other controversial practices.

The Climate Duties of Sub-National Political Communities – co-authored with Jeremy Moss
Political Studies, 68(1), 20-36.
Available, here.
In recent years, several actors at the sub-national level (e.g. California, British Columbia, New York City) have taken unilateral steps to mitigate climate change by reducing their emissions. These developments have commanded considerable attention in the empirical literature. In this piece, we consider the philosophical dimensions of climate action at the sub-national level. Specifically, we argue that many sub-national political communities have moral duties to take unilateral action on climate change, where the national communities to which they belong fail to do so. Along the way, we consider complications arising out of the inevitable fact of partial compliance, and the phenomenon of carbon leakage.

Against Lottocracy
European Journal of Political Theory, Forthcoming.
Early view available, here.
Dissatisfaction with democratic institutions has run high in recent years. Perhaps as a result, political theorists have begun to turn their attention to possible alternative modes of political decision-making. Many of the most interesting among these involve reliance on lotteries in some way or other – as a means of distributing the franchise, selecting representatives, or making social choices. Advocates of these ‘lottocratic’ systems contend that they retain the egalitarian appeal of democracy, while promising improved political outcomes. The aim of this paper is to defend democracy (or, at least, universal suffrage and majority rule) against the challenge posed by these proposals. I argue, firstly, that lottocratic systems necessarily involve the establishment of objectionable social and political inequalities that democracies do not. Secondly, I raise a number of doubts with respect to the purported instrumental benefits of these proposals.

Enfranchising the Youth
Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 23(6), 732-755.

Available, here.
Children are, almost everywhere, denied the right to vote. Democratic theorists tend to assume, without a great deal of argument, that age-based discrimination in access to the franchise is justified. In this paper, I challenge the orthodoxy. I argue that all major, plausible accounts of the justification of democracy require the enfranchisement of a substantial proportion of the child population. Along the way, I consider and respond to a number of major objections to child enfranchisement.

Democratic Legitimacy and the Competence Objection
Res Publica, 25(2), 283-293.
Available, here.
Elitist scepticism of democracy has a venerable history. This paper responds to the latest round of such scepticism – the ‘competence objection,’ articulated in recent work by Jason Brennan (2011, 2016). Brennan’s charge is that democracy is unjust because it allows uninformed, irrational, and morally unreasonable voters to exercise power over high-stakes political decisions, thus imposing undue risk upon the citizenry. I show that Brennan’s objection admits of two interpretations, and argue that neither can be sustained on close examination. Along the way, I consider the merits of Brennan’s preferred ‘epistocratic’ alternative to democracy, and argue that it is likely to lead to lower-quality outcomes. 

Going it Alone: Cities and States for Climate Action – co-authored with Jeremy Moss
Ethics, Policy & Environment, 21(1), 56-59.
Available, here.
Several US states and cities responded to President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement by committing to take unilateral action – i.e. to reduce their emissions, even in the absence of an adequate national-level climate policy. In this piece we consider the climate duties of sub-national political communities. We argue that many such communities have capacity-based duties to reduce their emissions.

A Citizens’ Assembly for the Cognitively Disabled
Social Theory and Practice, 46(1), 205-229.
Available, here.
The vast majority of democratic nations restrict the voting rights of persons with cognitive disabilities. Several democratic theorists have recently argued that such restrictions ought to be abolished, arguing, inter alia, that such restrictions lead to the disenfranchisement of persons on morally irrelevant grounds, express objectionable attitudes about the cognitively disabled, and do not plausibly prevent harms of any kind. I agree with such arguments. Yet some have also expressed the hope that the enfranchisement of such persons might give politicians more powerful incentives to attend to the interests of the cognitively disabled – a group who, by all accounts, are poorly served by governments the world over. In this paper, I argue that, for several reasons, such hopes are likely to be disappointed. If we wish to ensure that such persons’ interests are taken seriously in the political process, we must consider reforms of other kinds. I consider several possible reforms in this paper, arguing in the end for a deliberative solution, modeled upon the 2004 British Columbia Citizens’ Assembly on electoral reform.

Assessing Objections to Compulsory Voting in Australia
A Century of Compulsory Voting in Australia: Genesis, Impact and Future’, Matteo Bonotti and Paul Strangio (eds), Forthcoming.
Decades of survey data has consistently shown that an overwhelming majority of Australians support the institution of compulsory voting. Yet there is also a vocal minority who object to it, for a wide range of reasons. Amongst many other concerns, compulsory voting is said to be undemocratic, is charged with lowering the quality of election campaigns, constitutes an unacceptable infringement of individual liberty, unacceptably magnifies the power of ‘swing’ voters, and violates the right not to vote. In this chapter, I lay out and critically assess these objections. I argue that though many are interesting, none comes anywhere close to showing that compulsory voting in Australia ought to be repealed.

Sub-National Climate Duties: Addressing Three Challenges
Climate Justice: Corporations, Regions, Cities, and Individuals, Jeremy Moss and Lachlan Umbers (eds), Routledge, 2020.
In this chapter, I defend the claim that, where the sovereign states to which they belong fail to discharge their duties to reduce their emissions to mitigate climate change, many sub-national political communities have duties to take unilateral steps to reduce their emissions. I begin by setting out the positive case for this claim. I then seek to defend this claim against three important objections: the appeal to uncertainty, the appeal to unfairness, and the appeal to the possibility of carbon leakage. Each raises important, relevant issues. None, however, is ultimately successful.

Partisanship, Compulsory Voting, and the Right Not To Vote (In Progress)
A popular objection to compulsory voting holds that it violates the ‘right not to vote’. I argue that both existing attempts to establish the existence of such a right, and existing responses to this objection, fail. I then propose a novel account of the right not to vote. Citizens, I argue, have respect-based claims against being compelled to express certain attitudes, where the content of such attitudes is inconsistent with their equal moral standing. Voting compels citizens to express partisan attitudes – i.e. to express their endorsement of particular political parties, candidates, projects, or ideals. Under certain conditions, the content of such attitudes is inconsistent with the equal standing of certain social groups. Members of these groups, in such cases, therefore have claims against being compelled to vote. I then go on to consider the implications for the justification of compulsory voting. The right not to vote, I argue, does not undermine the general case for compulsory voting but, rather, argues for affording members of oppressed social groups limited exceptions from the requirement to vote.

Coercion, Compulsory Voting, and Liberty (In Progress)
The standard ‘liberty objection’ to compulsory voting holds (1) that compulsory voting subjects citizens to coercion and thereby abridges their liberty, (2) that abridging citizens’ liberty by subjecting citizens to coercion without sufficient justification is unjust, and (3) that there is no such justification available for compulsory voting. Proponents of compulsory voting, cognisant of this objection, typically argue against claim (3). Recently, however, several theorists have sought to challenge claim (1). On these views, far from abridging citizens’ liberty or subjecting them to coercion, compulsory voting can be seen variously as a defence against domination (Lardy, 2004), a form of ‘self-paternalism’ (Hill, 2014), or a mere ‘pre-commitment device’ or ‘nudge’ (Elliott, 2017). In this paper, I argue that each of these approaches is deeply mistaken. Compulsory voting does, indeed, subject citizens to coercion and abridge their liberty. If proponents of compulsory voting wish to overcome the liberty objection, their only option is to concede as much, and argue that such coercion may be justified.

The Democratic Disvalue of Declining Turnout (In Progress)
Turnout is in decline in established democracies around the world. Many democrats are alarmed by this trend, and have proposed a range of potential solutions (e.g. compulsory voting). This paper, however, concerns the more foundational – and surprisingly controversial – question of whether and why falling turnout is problematic, at all. I begin by laying out a range of empirical evidence that links falling turnout to rising inequality, corruption, and dissatisfaction with democratic institutions. By appeal to this body of evidence, I then critically engage with arguments from Brennan (2016) and Saunders (2012) which purport to establish that declining turnout is unproblematic (or, at least, is not necessarily problematic). Finally, engaging with Hill (2014), I argue that falling turnout is deeply worrying from a democratic perspective. Defensible democratic decision-procedures, I argue, must give appropriate weight to the legitimate interests of all those who stand to be affected by their decisions. Insofar as falling turnout has inevitably entailed socially uneven rates of electoral participation, it critically undermines this ideal. The paper concludes by considering a range of potential objections.

Partisan Gerrymandering and Respect for Autonomy (In Progress)
Partisan gerrymandering – the manipulation of electoral boundaries for political advantage – has long been a feature of many democracies. It is also almost universally regarded as morally wrongful. Surprisingly little attention has been paid, however, to the matter of what makes partisan gerrymandering objectionable. In this paper, I show that many apparently attractive explanations of the wrongful nature of partisan gerrymandering cannot withstand close scrutiny. I then propose a novel, respect-based account, respond to several objections, and consider a number of practical implications.