The Volokh Conspiracy

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Political Ignorance

Political Ignorance and Voting for a Lesser Evil

Canadian columnist Marcus Gee has an excellent article on how political ignorance exacerbates the challenges of voting for a lesser evil. But the problem is in some ways even worse than he suggests. At the same time, there is much we can do to improve the quality of our decisions.


On June 7, voters in the Canadian province of Ontario will be going to the polls to choose a new government for the province. Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Marcus Gee has an interesting article arguing that all three major-party options in the election are badly flawed, and analyzing the challenges voters face in deciding which of the bad choices is the lesser evil. As he explains, widespread political ignorance results in a situation where all too many voters make choices based on crude partisan bias and often-misleading information shortcuts. Even if you have little interest in the Ontario election, Gee's insightful column is well-worth reading as a helpful overview of the dangers of voter ignorance and bias, and the challenges of choosing between bad options at the polls. The many Americans who hated the options before them in the awful 2016 election can readily sympathize with his dilemma.

I agree with much of what he says about the problem of voter ignorance, and I also think he is right to conclude that voting for a lesser evil is often the right thing to do. But in some key respects he both understates the dangers of political ignorance, and overlooks potential solutions.

Gee focuses on the ways in which ignorance and bias might lead voters to make poor choices between the available alternatives. But public ignorance also has a big effect in determining what those choices will be in the first place. Candidates and parties know they face a largely ignorant electorate, and they structure their platforms accordingly. For example, Gee alludes to the fact that all three Ontario parties are largely acting as if the province's very serious fiscal problems can be finessed through a combination of smoke and mirrors and pretending they don't exist. If the voters were better-informed about fiscal issues, the parties could not get away with that, and quite likely would not even try to do so. Similarly, voter ignorance played a major role in ensuring that American voters faced such terrible options in the 2016 general election. Donald Trump's victory in the GOP primaries was almost a textbook case of exploiting voter ignorance on various issues, most notably trade and immigration. The situation in the Democratic Party was only modestly better. By the time we we get to the polls on election day, much of the harm caused by voter ignorance has already been inflicted, by ensuring that we really do face a choice of evils.

I. How Political Knowledge is Different From Consumer Knowledge.

In his column Gee also somewhat downplays the problem of voter ignorance by suggesting that ballot-box decisions are similar to private-sector ones, and that a high degree of ignorance is unavoidable in both cases:

We all have to find some way to make a decision. It may not be a perfect decision or a terribly sophisticated decision – but, then, what decision is? Faced with buying a new fridge, most people don't search endlessly through Consumer Reports and compare each model for price, reliability, energy use and design. They see their neighbour's new fridge and ask: How do you like it? Or they watch a persuasive ad and decide: That one will do.

It is certainly true that we almost never "search endlessly" for information when we make decisions. Our knowledge is always imperfect. Nonetheless, it is likely that most people devote far more time and effort to seeking out information when they buy a a new refrigerator or a new car than when they decide who to vote for in any election. I follow politics far more closely than the average American. During the November 2017 election here in Virginia, I spent more time than usual figuring out who to vote for because I was more divided in my own mind than usual, and because the election was expected to be close (it turned out not to be). Even so, the time and effort I spent was only a fraction of what I devoted to deciding what car to buy the last time the Somin family needed a new one. Even though I find cars boring, I still did a good deal of research and test-drove three different SUVs, and tried to evaluate what I learned as objectively as I could.

My case is not that unusual. A great deal of evidence shows that people consistently acquire more information about significant private decisions than about ballot box choices, and also that private decision-makers do a far better job of objectively evaluating what they learn. Why is it that? Largely because we know that the decision about a car or refrigerator is actually likely to make a difference. When I was deciding what car to buy, I knew that the one I chose would almost certainly be the one our family ended up with. If I screwed up, we would probably pay a high price for the mistake. By contrast, even in a very close election, the chance that my vote—no matter how well-informed—would make a decisive difference in choosing the next governor of Virginia is infinitesimally small. Thus, it was perfectly rational to devote more time to the car decision. The same logic holds true for most other voters, especially those who (unlike me) don't find politics particularly interesting. It is logical for them to be "rationally ignorant" about politics, and also to devote little effort to curbing their biases in evaluating the information they do learn.

If we want to curb the dangers of ignorant decision-making, we should reform our institutions so that more decisions are made in the private sector—or by "voting with our feet"—where we have stronger incentives to become well-informed. Other things equal, it would be better if more decisions were like the ones we make about cars and refrigerators, and fewer like the ones we make in elections.

II. How to be a More Responsible Citizen.

In the meantime, poorly informed voters have more options than Gee suggests. He claims generally have no choice but to cast a ballot based on crude heuristics and biases, because voting is "a civic obligation." But if they are indeed poorly informed (especially compared to the average voter in their jurisdiction), they should consider not voting at all. Abstaining from ignorant voting is not a breach of civic duty; to the contrary, it is often the right thing to do. If you know little or nothing about the issues at stake in an election and are unwilling or unable to become better-informed, you can often serve the public interest best by staying home on election day and leaving the outcome up to those who might make better choices.

If you believe you have a duty to help the community, you can fulfill it in any number of other ways, such as contributing to charity, performing various types of public service, or even simply being good at your job. At the very least, you should not try to "serve" by reducing the quality of the electorate, which far from benefiting society actually makes the situation worse. As John Stuart Mill put it, voting is not just a personal choice, but rather "the exercise of power over others." If you can't exercise that power in at least a minimally responsible manner, maybe you should not do so at all. Casting poorly-informed votes is often rational. But rational behavior is not always good behavior.

Neither the US nor Canada has mandatory voting (and that is a good thing). So nonvoting is always an option. If you are well-informed about some races and referenda, but know very little about others, you can always vote on the former, and abstain on the latter. For what it is worth, I practice what I preach, and engage in such selective abstention myself. Given our limited time and cognitive ability, it isn't wrong to be ignorant about various candidates and issues. But, with some exceptions, it is generally wrong to inflict that ignorance on the rest of society. And, despite Gee's (and many other people's) claims to the contrary, staying home does not mean you have no right to complain about the policies of the winners. You still have every right to condemn harmful and unjust government policies.

If you are determined to vote nonetheless, there is much you can do to make yourself a better voter—both by learning more about the issues and by trying to curb your biases. I discussed several such steps here, and see also this useful article in Scientific American and political philosopher Jason Brennan's recommendations in his book The Ethics of Voting. Even the best-informed voters will have great difficulty in coping with the enormous size and scope of modern government. But they can be better than most voters currently are. If you are going to vote for a lesser evil, your decision on which is the lesser and which the greater should be at least relatively well-informed and unbiased.

Sadly, because of the perverse incentives they face, I am not optimistic that any substantial fraction of poorly informed voters will either decide to stay home on election day or significantly increase their levels of political knowledge. Ironically, the kinds of people who carefully consider these questions are probably already much more knowledgeable and objective than most of the electorate. Still, it is useful to remember that you don't have to vote, and there is much you can do to improve your decision-making if you do.