03 July 2014

Since you mentioned it

Somehow in the context of the varied debates on Hobby Lobby and corporations are bad mkay, the question of low-information or poorly informed voting emerged but attached to the problem of low voter turnout, as it often is (which I find curious, probably because most people are poorly informed about who votes and how, ironically enough).

I am skeptical this is a meaningfully identified problem. And since I am now a go-to person for the "people should really not bother voting" claim, I will explain why here so I can just link to it whenever it comes up again.

1) Marginal utility of voting is extremely low. The likelihood of individual votes changing a voting outcome is astronomically low. The likelihood is even lower that a voter changes an election outcome if more people vote. The incentive of people who vote should be to have lower participation so they have more control over the outcome. People who vote should not complain that much about the fact that other people do not vote. This matters a great deal in the next portion. (there's also a distinction here I will discuss in a moment between people who choose not to vote or don't care to and people who can not vote or are prevented from voting)

2) High information voters vote at much higher rates. These would be people who make more money, or have higher educational attainment on average. These are not perfectly correlated, but on average higher income or especially higher education correlates with higher voting participation and with higher political knowledge. Not all of these people vote mind you (and some cannot for legal reasons, immigration status, etc), but many more of them vote than low information voters percentage wise and there are a lot of them. There is not a problem of high information voters sitting at home forgetting to vote. This is not the issue in voter turnout. Most of the people who don't vote are low information voters who have little interest in politics. Most of the people who do vote are motivated by some issue or another and at least believe themselves to be well-informed on those issues. They tend to possess more information at any rate (whether or not it is accurate).

Encouraging more people to vote is generally encouraging more people who don't know very much about the relevant topics to vote and not gathering in some mysterious clutch of smart and reasonable people who would push the electorate over the top. In general, "smart and reasonable" people on some given topic either disagree (reasonably if possible), are just as poorly informed as the general public, or have their own biases that push them to be misinformed as well. There are few matters that "smart and reasonable" people make up a large voting bloc, a correct and reasoned opinion on what the vote should be, and that they would push an issue forward or prevent one from passing. The theory that they do matter significantly relies on the assumption that uninformed or misinformed voters break randomly and could be overwhelmed by enough smart people. They do not. They break based upon biases that push their voting preferences in particular and predictable directions (nativism for instance). These biases can easily overwhelm expert opinion, or the expert opinion is easily co-opted to serve those biases and interests. The solution to that problem is not to encourage more low information people to show up as a result and not to complain about low voter turnout as if fewer people vote, the likelihood is better that higher information voters will comprise most of the electorate. Misinformation is a separate problem from voter turnout as a result.

3) If the problem is limited to "misinformed" voters, that may be a description which applies to almost all voters on some issue or candidate or another. VERY VERY few people study politics and elections carefully all the way through every time. I am probably a very high information voter in that I try to look into local and state matters as best I can and I still would consider myself poorly or even potentially misinformed by biases and priors and assumptions in many instances. I would admit to having this weakness, and it sometimes leads me to ignore certain issues or races in casting a ballot by refraining out of ignorance. If more people who do vote would do this voluntarily however, the misinformed voter problem only gets worse. I would probably be voting randomly if I did vote under those circumstances, or at least looking out for my worst possible options to exclude those. The average voter does not do this but enters with a preconceived judgment and uses heuristics to assess their unknown priors (such as party affiliations). The average voter also does not know they possess misinformation. Indeed, they are often much more convinced they possess accurate and true information than someone who is skeptical. This can happen on a specific issue, while maintaining wisdom elsewhere or a broad set of them can produce delusions. Diagnosing and countering the misinformation problem is tricky at best as a result.

4) If the problem is "misinformation", who determines this? The misinformed voting public? The people they elected? Some third party? Who would agree on that third party and how would that be done? And then, finally, how after all of that would be deemed fair to exclude anyone who was considered "misinformed" from voting. Complaining that the other guy thinks and believes and votes based something that you think is wacky is not evidence of misinformation that should exclude their vote. All of us really are in that boat. I'd rather not start launching stones over it with the idea that if only we could get these people not to vote, all of our problems would be solved. I realize there's a huge voter bias problem on a lot of economic questions, among many others where there's a big divergence from expert opinion and the general public. I do not think that means we should just start in with the technocracy and forget about the voters.

What does this all mean?
Here is what I would propose as solutions to the voting problem

1) Stop encouraging people just "to vote". Instead, encourage more people to engage in friendly debate about politics, to listen to people they disagree with (although this is distasteful and sometimes demonstrates their ignorance more than it helps, it is important now and again to confront the strongest arguments of our opponents by being aware they exist), and to do some research on the events going on in legislation or judicial rulings and so on. If people will do those things, they will probably vote anyway. If they don't want to do those things, they probably aren't interested in voting and we don't need to require and exhort them to show up as some social calling. They either will or they won't.

The advantage of friendly engagement is that it allows us to make and form friendships or acquaintances with people we might not otherwise listen to. I find I have a subset of people who will pushback on some given issue even if I think they are ill-informed or wrong and I prefer that they do (though I find that I have a low tolerance for ad hominem tactics of argument, which is not friendly and should probably not be tolerated). This advantage should not be underestimated. Even if we do not agree with "those people", we will know some of them and it will be much harder to inspire strong partisan feelings that they are always wrong about everything and can be dismissed and ignored, or more concerning, they should be dismissed and ignored on everything because they are "those people" and not because they are wrong about this or that thing.

Libertarians run into this all the time because of the "crazy" beliefs like heroin should be legal or the federal reserve rantings of Austrians. That doesn't make them wrong on whether marijuana should be legal or whether free speech should be respected, or the NSA surveillance, and so on. We should be willing to form these alliances of convenience when people have different opinions on many things but shared opinions on these things here. (as a note though, I usually worry when there is a "bipartisan consensus" on some issue in DC. Most of those are establishmentarian rather than based upon a shared coherent ideological goal, which I am not in favor of things simply because it is good for the status quo power struggle).

2) Don't prevent people from voting. In fact, make it easier to vote, not harder. The problem of voter fraud does exist, but it is very small relative to the massive number of people who are legally prevented from voting for no apparent reason (felons who have already served time for instance in many states, as one example). Some of these would be people who are highly motivated to vote on a particular issue (as a result of their encounter with the state up close and personal) and they deserve to cast their opinion on those matters. The likelihood that an election could turn based on the ex-con vote is small too, but it is much more significant than the probability that an election could be stolen or rigged based on including people who can't vote, and so on.

3) Stop complaining about misinformed voters. Go inform them, or delegate someone to do so, or perhaps just go and talk to them. You may find sometimes it is YOU are who are misinformed. This will be an unpleasant but necessary and humbling experience.

4) Stop worrying about voter turnout rates. These are not necessarily symptomatic of any problem. Worry more about information distribution than the voter distribution.

5) Stop only really encouraging people to vote during Presidential cycles. Important matters can happen and be decided every year.

The reason this happens is that many people vote via party affiliation. Parties have a strong interest in promoting turnout during Presidential cycles, because they place a lot of signalling importance on who is President. They place some importance on other matters. You may find you would prefer to place more importance on those matters that are of local or state control, or who your Congressional representative is. Particularly if you follow the separation of powers and the precise powers available and used by the officials we elect.

Presidents for example are essentially irrelevant (unless they're terrible) on anything other than international relations/foreign policy, and the dialogue and scope of civil liberties protections or abuses, via their court appointments if necessary. Their economic policies have to be enacted by Congress to carry any meaning and weight. Their foreign policy or court picks usually are just signed off on by Congress (even though they're supposed to have more authority there). These are also very removed from the average voter as concerns (on average). That means that you should probably care a lot more about who your Senator is, or who your governor is, or who your school board is.

6) Over time, seek to reduce the number of things and issues which are determined politically and as a matter of law. But be free to use the political process to make those reductions and to argue over which are to be so determined.

7) As a corollary to all of this, be aware that many matters occur and can be lobbied for or against in between elections and that using elections as a time to weigh in on those decisions is probably less adequate a safeguard of democratic representation than is being aware of the motions and bills that are moving forward on issues of concern to you or your friends or family.

This is largely why I did and still do not worry about Citizens United. Putting more money and attention into elections potentially moves it away from the lobbying and legislative end. There is far more heat and light right now on the election end of the process and biases introduced by powerful agents are easier to recognize and combat there as a result.
Post a Comment