Should People Who Are Ignorant About Policy Be Allowed To Vote?

From Thinking Outside The Boxe’s Sydney Correspondent: Originally I was asked to write an article questioning whether people of low intelligence should be allowed to vote. But soon after I began researching the topic I realized that there was a far more interesting question that could be explored. Now obviously it could be argued that in a country where voting is not compulsory people not interested in policy or politics would simply not vote. But the issue is not that simple.

Apart from the obvious argument that the point of voting is to decide which candidate best represents your political beliefs, and the policies you agree with, there is the question of whether people sometimes simply vote for charismatic individuals and give their policies little thought. This is particularly the case in Presidential elections. The topic we are exploring also has implications for vote buying and other fraudulent voting strategies.

It goes without saying that the whole point of a democratic election process is to ensure that the wishes of the majority of the people are followed. Amidst all the attack ads, and fanfare of the Democrat and Republican conventions there are two Presidential candidates with differing political views on how the nation should be run. These opposing policies have a considerable impact upon our lives. As such I personally believe that being engaged with politics is very important as is the right to vote. This is a right we enjoy but it is denied to many millions of people living in a variety of nations around the world.

The idea that people should vote according to policy is an interesting one because it implies that an individual could be a ‘swinging voter’, one not aligned to any political party. This raises the question of whether, and how many, people vote for a candidate simply on the basis that he/she represents a political party that they have always voted for. In these cases it is likely that there are a lot of people who simply ignore what the candidate who doesn’t represent their chosen party is even saying, and that it would not matter how good or bad his/her policies were. The fact that there are ‘swing states’ where this is not the case proves that this does happen in a majority of states. This question was addressed by Tim Dean, writing in the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s ‘The Drum’ blog. Dean wrote. “..we’ve retreated to the safe havens of our echo chambers, where the only disparaging words are reserved for those idiots who disagree with us”.

It would be difficult to disagree with the proposition that Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 Presidential election owed much to the ‘feel good’ factor of the nation having the opportunity to elect its first African American President. Of course there were many other factors involved as well, after all it is hard to believe he was nominated as the Democrat Party candidate for the 2008 election based on race alone. As Adam Nagourney wrote in the New York Times, “…people rolled spontaneously into the streets to celebrate what many described, with perhaps overstated if understandable exhilaration, a new era in a country where just 143 years ago, Mr. Obama, as a black man, could have been owned as a slave”. Obama’s victory in 2008 was just as much about who he was as a person and what he symbolized as it was about politics and policy direction. To further underscore the point Rock The Vote reveals that this was even more pronounced among young people. During the 2008 primaries voter turnout among 18-29 year olds increased by more than 100% over the 2000 and 2004 levels.

Not allowing people disinterested or ignorant about policy to vote may also help prevent different forms of electoral fraud. A Fox News story revealed that vote buying was rampant and entrenched in eastern Kentucky. The report stated that drug dealers admitted they had bought votes to influence elections. One 54 year old man even said that vote buying had been going on since he was a boy. And an attorney revealed that the scheme had involved hundreds of thousands of dollars. While it is clear that much of this vote buying involved elections at a local level, and that neither the Democrat or Republican Party was in any way implicated, it is difficult to believe that not a cent of such a large amount of money was spent during Presidential elections. A system to ensure that voters are aware of policies may help reduce the effect of this, and other types of electoral fraud.

So how could we ensure that only people who are engaged with the policies of the candidates are allowed to vote? Obviously it would have to be a simple test that did not take too long to complete. I would suggest that there should be a small number of multiple choice questions on the ballot paper. (This would probably work even better with electronic voting systems). I believe that there should be five multiple choice questions relating to the policies of each candidate and that if the voter got more than one question wrong their vote would be void. The most important thing would be to ensure that the questions were fair so that they could prove that a person was aware of the most important policy positions of the candidates; but they must also be policies that any person could easily have read about or seen during the election campaign. An obvious flaw is that one person sufficiently educated about the issues of the day could walk out of the booth and then tell other people the answers to the questions. Therefore the questions should appear in a random order and there should probably also be more than five prepared so that every person does not see the same questions.

A system where people can vote only if they have enough real interest in the political policies of the day ensures that the policies enacted by the winning candidate really do reflect the true wishes of the citizens. It may also help prevent some instances of electoral fraud, and ensure that candidates do not win simply because of their personality or what they symbolize. It is clear that this is not a foolproof system. It would be virtually impossible to construct one. And so we return to where we began. The implementation of such a system would mean that people of a low level of intelligence would not be able to vote. However, as a University of Cambridge Intellectual & Development Research Group paper pointed out, “It is also widely acknowledged that many electors, far from engaging thoughtfully with the political issues of the day, cast their votes unreflectively by following traditional loyalties of class, tribe, religion, or ethnicity”.

Click to access young-voter-myths-and-facts.pdf

University of Cambridge Intellectual and Development Disabilities Research Group, The Participation of Persons with Disabilities in Political and Public Life, 15 October 2011.

Note: At the time of writing the above paper could be accessed via a Google search using the phrase “Submission to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities from the Cambridge Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Group”.

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