Opinion

Does a higher turnout mean more ignorant voters?

My column last week criticizing President Barack Obama’s suggestion that the U.S. consider mandatory voting has provoked a considerable response. I proposed that, if we really think raising voter turnout is important, we abandon coercion and offer a cash incentive instead.

Among the more intriguing reactions was a Washington Post op-ed article by the always thoughtful Ilya Somin of George Mason University. Somin agrees with me that paying people is better than forcing them, but worries – as many do – about what will happen if low-information voters show up just to get the money: “The end result would be an even more ignorant electorate than we have now, and party platforms and government policies that cater to that ignorance.”

The idea that it matters whether voters are informed rests on the proposition that an electorate of high-information voters is superior to an electorate of low-information voters. Voters have a civic duty to use the franchise rationally, and not to base their choices on, say, the color of the candidate’s skin, or a television attack ad, or – as in the case of a relative of mine – because a city’s Democratic Party machine gives her a turkey every Thanksgiving and a ride to the polls on Election Day.

This proposition in turn can lead to a useful moral rule, which the philosopher Jason Brennan, in his book “The Ethics of Voting,” states this way: “Voters should justifiably believe that the policies or candidates they support would promote the common good. Otherwise, they should abstain from voting.”

The same instinct has led to efforts to turn low- information voters into high-information voters. In their book “Deliberation Day,” the legal scholar Bruce Ackerman and the political scientist James Fishkin propose a two-day national holiday before the election, to enable the citizenry to deliberate about the issues and candidates. There would be small groups for conversation, and larger audiences to hear the candidates respond to questions the groups raised. No one would be forced to participate, but those who did would receive cash. The authors identify as the signal problem in electoral politics that “a majority of voters are woefully ignorant and readily manipulated.” Deliberation Day, in their telling, would lead to a more informed citizenry, with the result that “the candidates, the media, the activists, the interest groups, the spin doctors, the advertisers, the pollsters, the fund raisers, the lobbyists, and the political parties … would have no choice but to adapt to a more attentive and informed public.”

In a similar vein, Somin points to the proposal by economist Bryan Caplan, author of “The Myth of the Rational Voter,” for a Voter Achievement Test, offered free to any citizen who wants to take it. The higher a voter’s score, the higher the cash reward: “The Voter Achievement Test doesn’t just give citizens a clear incentive to actually master the material by whatever means they find effective – elective classes, free reading, Internet, discussion, etc. It also gives them a clear incentive to maintain their mastery of the material, because they can retake the test for cash prizes every single year.”

These are interesting ideas, worthy of reflective consideration. But 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.

The truth is, we still know a lot less than we’d like about why people vote. It’s been a long time since social scientists have believed that self-interest is the crucial motivator. Some studies suggest that a sense of civic obligation pushes people to the polls. Or the ground might be slightly narrower: Maybe people turn out because they like the idea of being able to self-identify as voters. And although the correlation between educational level and turnout is well established, the question of causal link remains a battleground.

As I said last week, I don’t think turnout is a particularly important democratic indicator. Absent artificial barriers erected to keep people away from the polls, I don’t see any reason to push for higher turnout. My concern, however, isn’t that we'll wind up with a less informed electorate. I’m just willing to trust my fellow citizens to make up their minds on the question of whether voting is worth the effort.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a law professor at Yale.

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