I am framing this in an idealized situation with the following assumptions:

  1. The official never lies. (I did say this is an idealized situation)
  2. The official honestly and openly presented his position on the issue when running for the office.
  3. The official thoroughly researched the details of the bill he is going to vote on including listening to constituent feedback and expert opinion.
  4. The official’s sincerely held position on the bill is in opposition to the majority opinion of his constituents.
  5. The official is confident that he knows the majority opinion of his constituents.
  6. The official’s constituents are all well informed and thoroughly researched the issue. (Again, an idealized situation)
  7. To keep this a bit more narrowly focused, we'll say for this is a U.S. Representative.


  1. The official believes the bill is perfectly in line with his stated position while running for office.
  2. The official believes the bill is almost perfectly in line with his stated position while running for office, but rejects it due to elements that are not or because it incorporates a means of implementation that he strongly disagrees with (i.e. the ends don't justify the means).
  3. The official has a sincere change of heart while in office and the bill is not in line with his stated position while running for office.

Should the official always vote his conscience or should he sometimes vote against his conscience because the majority of his constituents believe he should?

While I am interested in this from a philosophical perspective, I am asking here about any obligations or expectations stated or implied by oaths, laws, etc. within United States government.

  • 4
    I don't believe there are laws enforcing this kind of thing at all in the US. It seems like it would defeat the purpose of having elected officials vote on anything, rather than just sending it to popular referendum.
    – Geobits
    Sep 30, 2016 at 12:59
  • I agree, but I had quite an argument with my dad about this and was curious if there is anything at all that even implies that this is expected.
    – brader24
    Sep 30, 2016 at 13:16
  • 1
    In short, this is a difference between binding and non-binding representation. There are upsides and downsides to both. In a simple case of the vote being "who to pick for president", look up "faithless electors" term.
    – user4012
    Sep 30, 2016 at 13:47
  • 2
    I'm not sure this falls under the purview of the stack. This is a question about the ethics of how a representative should act, meaning there is no right answer. Any answer would be primarily opinion-based. Sep 30, 2016 at 18:18
  • 2
    To give a perspective from outside of the US: the Art. 38,I of the German Grundgesetz (Constitution, literal translation "Foundational Law") states: "The Representatives of the German Federal Parliament are elected in general, direct, free, equal and secret elections. The are representatives of the entire people, not bound by orders and directives, and subject only to their conscience." [emphasis mine]. Sep 30, 2016 at 22:24

4 Answers 4


Philipp's answer provides an excellent resolution to the legal (or compliance) aspect of the question. My answer will focus on the political theory.

You could apply many meta-theories (utilitarianism, social contract theory, etc.), but generally these will collapse into two models: the trustee and delegate model. Both were articulated in a series of speeches by Edmund Burke. For a concise example, see Speech to the Electors of Bristol. Certainly you can find examples of them in many other theorists' work also.

The Delegate Model

In the delegate model, representatives are not autonomous. They merely represent the wishes of their constituency. Burke likens this to the role of an ambassador who, when representing their nation, can only act as the nation's mouthpiece - their power is limited to the desires of those they represent.

This kind of delegation can be favored because it encourages control by the people, rather than their agent.

The Trustee Model

In the trustee model, representatives are not restricted once they are elected. In this view, once elected a representative is "entrusted" with the good of the community. This empowers them to make unpopular choices for the public good, including choices which are disadvantageous for their constituents but benefits to the nation at large.

Burke himself supported this model. Saying:

You choose a member [of Parliament] indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.

Notably, Burke was not returned to Parliament in the next election.

  • 5
    Notably, the Trustee Model is most excellent if assumption #6 "The official’s constituents are all well informed and thoroughly researched the issue." is false. I don't want to vote for a guy who follows my uninformed opinion, I want a guy who's job it is is to get informed to make these calls. Sep 30, 2016 at 22:25

The oath of office in the US house of representatives is:

“I, AB, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

So no. The representative swears to defend the constitution, not his constituent.

The constitution further says that congress members are elected by their constituencies and what they may and may not decide on, but in no place does it mention that their decisions should take the current opinion of their constituency into account.

So no, according to oaths, laws etc. representatives are not obligated to represent the opinion of the majority of his constituents.

However, one could of course still make the argument that they would be well-advised to do so if they want to be reelected.

  • 1
    It's interesting that this appears to be true even if all 10 of the OP's assumptions are violated. Sep 30, 2016 at 14:14
  • I'm torn between upvoting this answer because it is to an extent technically correct as far as practical rules of US politics, and downvoting because it doesn't even mention the actually interesting and complicated sides of the question (the "should" part) as far as political science theory (the spectrum between democracy and autochracy, Plato's ideal enlightened ruler etc...)
    – user4012
    Sep 30, 2016 at 14:17
  • 1
    As a side note: if someone writes a good deep answer taking the theory(ies) into account, I pledge a bounty on such an answer.
    – user4012
    Sep 30, 2016 at 14:21
  • @user4012 I was expecting some of that as well, until I read the last sentence in the OP. While it makes for a more clear-cut answer, it definitely means most of the question's assumptions and variations don't have any impact at all.
    – Geobits
    Sep 30, 2016 at 15:28
  • I agree, the far more interesting question is "should they?". I didn't want to make the question too subjective, but I was hoping for some conversation about this aspect thrown in. You are correct that most/all of my assumptions/variations don't matter given the exact question I asked, but I believe they do factor into the "should they" aspect. As someone with strong moral convictions, I could never vote against my conscience. To me, that is what elections are for. If my constituents do not like the way I vote, then don't reelect me.
    – brader24
    Sep 30, 2016 at 16:40

I'd say it depends on the issue and the background.

If the Congressperson made their position on the issue clear during the campaign, and got elected despite holding an opposite view than most on this one issue - then they are 100% free to vote their conscience as their constituents knew this to be your position on this issue, and still elected you as you were their overall choice despite this particular disagreement.

IF it is a hot-button issue back home then prudence would dictate that they vote as their constituents desire if they want a hope for re-election.

If it is one issue in a larger bill where there is more at stake (One item in a budget bill that your constituents are against), then educating your constituents on how it fits into a larger picture may be worth doing (We don't get the budget for X unless we put up with Y)

And sometimes a law is on the offerings that appeals to a popular current fear but the law is just plain badly drafted and sure to fall to a Constitutional challenge, in which case do you show your mettle and say "Yes, we need to fix this issue - but this law is a steaming pile of....whatever"

At the end of the day, however, yes - you were elected to be a representative for your constituents, so you are wise to heed what matters to them. If you want to stay elected. If, on the other hand, the issue means that much to you and you are willing to pay the possible price, then being a person of personal integrity is also (hopefully) one of the qualities they elected you for.

Although in today's hyper-partisan politics, party unity seems to often mean more than what the voters back home want....


First define what is "Congress" and what makes up Congress. The United States Congress is the bicameral legislature of the federal government of the United States consisting of two chambers: the Senate and the House of Representatives.

Secondly, what is the mission of Congress and those that make up the governing body of the USA? Although the two chambers of Congress are separate, for the most part, they have an equal role in the enactment of legislation, and there are several aspects of the business of Congress that the Senate and the House of Representatives share and that require common action. declare war, the right to confirm or reject many Presidential appointments, and substantial investigative powers

Thirdly, Who does a member of Congress represent and their responsibilities? According to the National Democratic Institute and their publication "Constituent Relations" (PDF)


So as stated above "...legislators are expected to represent citizens' interests" and with that said very succinctly, our elected officials must vote on issues based on the voice of the majority of constituents.

Our elected officials at every level of government were "Elected" to represent the people in their districts, counties, states; and therefore those officials do as the majority wants to have done.

  • You linked to the State Legislature of Montana, which is not at all relevant. Also, the "definition" of Congress is entirely unnecessary.
    – abelenky
    Oct 7, 2016 at 20:05

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .