What if we are all sometimes ignorant voters?

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Yale Law School Professor Stephen Carter has written an insightful op ed commenting on my assessment of his suggestion that we can increase voter turnout by paying citizens to go to the polls. As Carter notes, we agree on several key points: that paying people to vote is better than forcing them to do so; that mandatory voting or paying voters could exacerbate the problem of political ignorance; and that there is no inherent moral duty to vote. We also both agree that political ignorance is at least potentially a significant problem.

However, Carter views it as much less serious than I do, for the following reason:

I will confess that I don't much worry about low-information voters. Perhaps my theory of democracy is more chaotic than most. Of course I see the advantages of an electorate that is engaged and informed, but I resist instinctively the notion that some grounds for voting are better than others. Maybe this is racial memory, a concern about the days of literacy tests. (No, I'm not drawing any sort of equivalence or even analogy.) More likely it's my suspicion that all of us, at one time or another, are low-information voters. To see what I mean, just start a couple of well-educated opponents talking about abortion or same-sex marriage.

It is indeed true that virtually all of us are sometimes "low-information voters." Given the enormous size, scope, and complexity of modern government, even the best-informed citizens are likely to be woefully ignorant about at least some of the important issues addressed by the state. The risk is further exacerbated by the enormous number of elections and referenda on the ballot. Moreover, political partisans who imagine that voter ignorance is only prevalent among those who support the opposing party is are wrong. In reality, there is plenty of ignorance and irrational thinking among both Republican and Democratic voters. And the swing voters who determine the outcomes of close elections are often the most ignorant of all.

But the pervasiveness of voter ignorance should lead us to worry more about the problem, not less. And it should make us more reluctant to adopt policies—such as mandatory voting or paying otherwise uninterested people to vote—that would make the problem even worse.

I can understand the widely shared intuition that we should avoid claiming that "some grounds for voting are better than others." But careful reflection suggests that it is mistaken, and I doubt that Carter himself would fully endorse it. As John Stuart Mill put it, voting is not just an individual choice, but the exercise of "power over others." The officials elected by ignorant voters rule over all of society, not just those who supported them. In many cases, they literally wield the power of life and death over large numbers of people. When we exercise power over others, we have a moral obligation to do so in at least a minimally responsible way, which includes being at least reasonably well-informed, and open to serious consideration of opposing ideas, instead of dismissing out of hand those that go against our preexisting views. Unfortunately, a high percentage of voters fail to meet even very minimal criteria of knowledge and open-mindedness.

If we really believed that political ignorance does not matter and that voters have a right to make decisions based on whatever criteria they want, we would have no basis for condemning those who vote based on racial or ethnic prejudice, rewarding or punishing politicians for events they did not cause , or ignorance of basic science. We would also have no justification for denying the franchise to children or for requiring legal immigrants to pass a civics test before being allowed to vote—one that large number of native-born Americans would fail.

I am not suggesting that the government should adopt more sweeping knowledge-based restrictions on the franchise than those that currently exist. Among other things, I don't believe that incumbent politicians can be trusted to exercise such power in anything like an unbiased fashion. History shows that it is likely to be used to disenfranchise opponents of the current government or various unpopular minorities. At the same time, I do think that people with very low levels of political knowledge who cannot or will not increase it should seriously consider voluntary abstention from at least some elections. At the very least, there is a strong case for abstention if you have good reason to believe that you are significantly more ignorant about the issues at stake than the average of the rest of the electorate. It isn't necessarily wrong to be ignorant about politics. But it is often wrong to inflict that ignorance on others.

Even if you are a generally well-informed voter, there are likely specific elections where your knowledge is seriously lacking and you don't have the time and energy to become better-informed. In such cases, I practice what I preach, and abstain.

Ultimately, I am not optimistic that individual self-restraint will make more than a modest dent in the problem of political ignorance. Among other things, I doubt that more than a small fraction of voters will give serious consideration to the question of how ignorant they may be relative to the rest of the electorate. Ironically, the most ignorant may be the least likely to devote time and effort to careful analysis of this possibility.

Moreover, the size and complexity of government will continue to create serious problems of ignorance for even the best-informed and most thoughtful voters. For that reason, among others, I believe the best way to mitigate the problem of political ignorance is to make fewer of our decisions through the political process, and more by "voting with our feet" in settings where we have stronger incentives to become well-informed and consider opposing evidence fairly. Reducing the size and complexity of government would also reduce the range of issues voters must keep track of and make it easier for them to learn enough to hold elected officials accountable for their performance, thereby curbing the power of organized interest groups to exploit ignorance at the expense of the general public.

But even if you disagree with me about possible solutions, it is important to recognize that political ignorance is a severe problem. And the fact that it afflicts nearly all of us is all the more reason for concern.