Some people are dumber than others, yet everyone’s vote counts the same.
Surveys since the 1950s have consistently shown that most Anericans are poorly informed about basic, important civic facts about our country, government, and political situation. An academic overview of research since the 1950s about voters’ knowledge found that a majority of Americans didn’t know the answers to questions about
definitions of key terms such as liberal, conservative, primary elections, or the bill of rights; knowledge of many individual and collective rights guaranteed by the Constitution; the names or issue stands of most public officials below the level of president or governor; candidate and party stands on many important issues of the day; key social conditions such as the unemployment rate or the percentage of the public living in poverty or without health insurance; how much of the federal budget is spent on defense, foreign aid, or social welfare; and so on.*
Defenders of our current system may argue that having a republican form of government is designed to solve this problem. They would argue that this is why we elect representatives who can inform themselves about the issues and vote for what would be best for us. But how can an ill-informed citizen know how to pick the best representative in the first place? Indeed, research shows that people’s
political knowledge seems to increase citizens’ ability to consistently con-
nect their policy views to their evaluations of public officials and political parties, as well as to their political behavior. For example, more-informed citizens are more likely to identify with the political party, approve of the performance of office holders, and vote for candidates whose policy stands are most consistent with their own views.**
Moreover, the better-informed demonstrate good citizenship beyond just choosing the optimal candidate or political party. For example,
the larger literature strongly suggeststhat informed citizens are “better” citizens in a number of ways. Specifically, research has found that more-informed citizens are more accepting of democratic norms such as political tolerance; are more efficacious about politics; are more likely to be interested in, follow, and discuss politics; and are more likely to participate in politics in a variety of ways, including voting, working for a political party,and attending local community meetings. Research also suggests that more-informed citizens are more likely to have opinions about the pressing issues of the day, are more likely to hold stable opinions over time, are more likely to hold opinions that are ideologically consistent with each other, and are less likely to change their opinions in the face of new but tangential or misleading information but more likely to change in the face of new relevant or compelling information.***
Some people vote against the public welfare not out of stupidity, but out of naked self-interest, voting for benefits for themselves at the expense of their fellow citizens and future generations.
To fix our system, we need voters who are informed, engaged, and public-spirited, rather than ignorant, apathetic, and selfish. Maybe it’s time we stated imposing some basic requirements about voters’ knowledge before they’re allowed to vote.
*Michael X. Delli Carpini, “An overview of the state of citizens’ knowledge about politics,” in M. S. McKinney, L. L. Kaid, D. G. Bystrom, and D. B. Carlin (Eds.), Communicating politics: Engaging the public in democratic life, pp. 29-30, http://repository.upenn.edu/asc_papers/53
**Same, p. 35 (citations omitted).
*** Same (citations omitted).