Should Ignorant Voters Be Excluded From the Franchise?

CNN columnist L.Z. Granderson recently argued that ignorant voters should be excluded from the franchise:

Should ignorant people be allowed to vote?

A provocative question for sure; however, I’m not bringing it up for shock value, but rather to give us all pause.

If I were to ask you to ingest an unknown medicine from someone who knew nothing about the medical field, you probably wouldn’t do it. And I doubt many of us would feel comfortable as a shareholder in a company that asked people who knew nothing about business to hire its next CEO?

Yet we all know people who gleefully admit they know nothing about politics, don’t have time to find out what the current issues are or even know how the government works, but go out and vote. Want to know why it seems Washington is run by a bunch of idiots? Blame this hiccup in our political system for starters. What’s a solution? Weed out some of the ignorant by making people who want to vote first pass a test modeled on the one given to those who want to become citizens….

In a recent CNN poll, more than a third of the people questioned wanted to see cuts in military spending, which is a good debate to have. The problem is the poll also revealed most Americans think the military takes up 30 percent of the budget when in reality it’s 19 percent. If we don’t know how much money is being spent, how can we intelligently say it’s too much? And what to make of the 20 percent of folks polled who believe public broadcasting represents 10 percent of the budget, when it’s more like a 10th of 1 percent?

I’m not suggesting someone needs to be a Rhodes scholar to vote.

But voters should at least be able to name the three branches of government. Voters should understand what a “trade deficit” is and how laws are made.

I agree with Granderson that political ignorance is a serious problem, and I also agree that voters have a moral duty to become informed about the issues at stake in elections they participate in. As John Stuart Mill put it, voting is not a purely private choice, but the “exercise of power over others.” I also agree with Granderson that political ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity, but is merely “lack of knowledge in a specific area.” Perfectly intelligent people can choose to remain ignorant about politics, and it is actually rational for most of them to do so. A person can know next to nothing about politics, but still be a brilliant physicist, for example. To say that someone is too ignorant about politics to be a competent voter does not imply that they are generally stupid or incompetent.

Although Granderson summarizes the problem well, I am skeptical about his proposed solution: a government-imposed knowledge test for would-be voters. Any such test would have to adopted by incumbent legislators. Those incumbents would have strong incentives to skew the test in favor of their own supporters, disproportionately excluding Democrats if the legislature is controlled by Republicans or vice versa. In addition, incumbent politicians have incentives to exclude voters of whatever party who want to set strict limits on the legislators’ own power. It’s easy to come up with a knowledge test where the questions are worded in such a way as to skew the results against opponents of the majority party, people who seek to limit government power more generally, or both.

A knowledge test for voting may be defensible in theory. But it’s not a power that government can be trusted with. As Granderson admits, past experience with literacy tests and similar devices proves that there is enormous potential for abuse. Most modern legislators probably wouldn’t try to skew the test on a purely racial basis, as happened in the days of Jim Crow. But they are certainly not above using it to exclude their political opponents.

Furthermore, no test can ensure that voters are knowledgeable about more than a small fraction of the activities undertaken by modern government. When government spending encompasses some 40% of GDP and the state also regulates almost every aspect of our lives, even the best-informed voters can’t keep track of more than a tiny part of what government does. If we really want a much better-informed electorate, we will have to reduce the size and complexity of government to a more manageable scale, and empower people to “vote with their feet,” which creates much better incentives to be informed than voting at the ballot box.

In the meantime, however, we can take modest steps to increase the knowledge levels of the electorate at the margin. These ideas won’t “solve” the problem of political ignorance. But they can make it a little less severe. For instance, we can cut back on efforts to increase voter turnout, which generally draw in voters who are less knowledgeable than the average. While government should not ban ignorant voting, it also should not encourage it.

Similarly, we can try to spread the idea that those who vote have a civic duty to become informed. As philosopher Jason Brennan explains in his important new book, the conventional wisdom has things backwards. It emphasizes people’s supposed duty to vote, but suggests that they have no obligation to become informed about what they are voting on. The truth is the exact opposite. It isn’t wrong to stay home on election day. But if you do choose to vote, you should make a serious effort to understand what you’re voting about.