Are some voters better than others?

No.  My first ever “letter to the editor” was published in the Columbus Dispatch way back in the mid 90’s when I was a grad student at Ohio State and it was on this very topic.  Thus, in the context of Republicans ongoing efforts to shrink the electorate and sometimes explicit “well, some voters are better than others” arguments, I love how Bernstein looks at this through the lens of democratic theory:


Assume for a minute that these are good-faith arguments — that the goal is to eliminate some objectively less-informed voters and not simply to get rid of those who support things that whoever gets to decide these cases opposes. Whatever the motivation, they don’t wash. Let’s be clear: There’s no case against universal suffrage in a democracy, and certainly not for restrictions based on the quality of the voter.

To demonstrate why, consider how they conflict with these four justifications for democracy.

The first is interest-based: Democracy is the preferred system of government because people have policy preferences, and they alone can speak up for those preferences. Therefore, everyone able to express their interests should have the vote and, to the greatest extent possible, equal access to political influence. The only exceptions are for those unable to act for themselves, mainly children, and for people like felons who have forfeited their right to take part in politics.

Yes, there are those who claim that people are not the best judges of their own interests. But if that argument is true, then this case for democracy fails. We’re better off, if we want these interests protected, in an elite, paternalistic government of experts who decide what’s best for all. It makes no sense to have a political system designed to fulfill personal preferences that only allows some citizens to register those preferences, leaving no one to speak for the rest.

A second argument for democracy is that engaging in politics and collective self-government is an inherently valuable human activity, and only in a democracy do we all have access to it. A republic based on this principle would have to be open to the participation of everyone (except for young children and felons). The simple ability to take part in self-government, regardless of political preferences, is the main point of the entire exercise.

Those who support democracy on this basis do so with the understanding that plenty of people are not interested in politics. Rather than create barriers to keep the less-interested out, they should, as I believe James Madison intended, find ways to engage citizens and encourage them to get involved…

This gets to the fourth, and I think by far the weakest, argument: Democracy is best because it produces objectively good public policy. The idea is closely linked to what Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels call the “folk theory” of democracy — that democracy succeeds because informed voters choose wisely from among the alternatives. To the extent that people such as Williamson are arguing in good faith and think they really are supporting some properly understood democracy, this is the theory they appear to be leaning on.

The problem? The folk theory of democracy is bunk. Elections per se don’t — can’t — do what people hope they can. It’s not because voters are not sufficiently sophisticated; it’s because (among other things) the mechanism of choosing candidates or parties isn’t sophisticated enough to give the specific signals needed to do that.

But even if that wasn’t the case, the argument that only sufficiently informed voters should participate is subject to a slippery slope. If eliminating the least-informed 20%, say, of the electorate would improve “democratic” outcomes, then why shouldn’t we eliminate 40% and get even better outcomes — or 60%, 80% or more?

There’s simply no magic line between qualified and unqualified voters — no natural cutoff above which we could say that someone is informed enough to contribute. If the point is to get the best public policy — and better-informed voters produce better policy — then we’re on a one-way road to government by experts.

Of course, people are free to argue for whatever form of government they like, including rule by experts, or rule by some group designated by birth in the right group, or rule by one political party. We just shouldn’t confuse those things with democracy — with the imperfect republic that the United States of America has become over the years.

There’s plenty of problems with democracy (the worst system, except for all the others), but they are most definitely not going to be solved by making it harder to vote.  

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

11 Responses to Are some voters better than others?

  1. homeys44 says:

    Four years of the Trump cult….yet the Left still clings to their “democracy is better when stupid people vote” utopian ideas. I don’t get it.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Did you read Bernstein? It’s pretty clear what you should be getting.

      • homeys44 says:

        Yep. All utopia. Not one word about the Trump cult, QAnon, or the insurrection. We’re barely 3 months past a real life example of why stupid people being politically engaged is often a bad thing…..and this guy totally ignores it. In 6 more months….he’ll be back whining about ignorant GOP voters that “vote against their own self interest”. Love hearing that from the democracy lovers.

      • Jim Danielson says:

        “Nothing goes over my head! My reflexes are too fast, I would catch it.”

    • Jim Danielson says:

      It’s the party of Trump that is disenfranchising voters and making it harder to vote, so while you use Trumpers as an excuse you actually side with them and that SHOULD give a rational person pause.

      But not you. It’s really not surprising since the right went off the rails long before Trump. They just finger point, accuse the other side, bluster, make lame excuses for their bad behavior and complete lack of policy, any rationalization in an attempt to give their insanity a patina of normal.

      Here you are dismissing democracy and completely failing to address a single one of the very basic points made in the article. Instead you cheer on authoritarianism, Trumpism and the destruction of democracy while pretending it’s all the other peoples fault and pretend to be above Trumpers while swallowing their agenda and complaining about Berstien writing about ignorant GOP voters at some time in the future.

      The irony, the outright stupidity practically drips off your two comments. Your argument comes down to “The Trumpers are so stupid we have to do exactly what the Trumpers want and stop people from voting.”
      Few arguments are dumber than that but you’ll probably top it at some point in the future.

      “If conservatives become convinced that they can not win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. The will reject democracy.”
      David Frum

      And here we are. The right has given up on democracy.

      • homeys44 says:

        Voting has never been easier. Even easier in many red states. Even Stacy Abrams can figure that much out. So spare me your weeping for democracy. Its not my problem that the Democrat party is largely built on getting the least educated, least engaged citizens…..and somehow duping, nagging and bribing them into voting for them, often with free money they borrowed. And then crying about fantasy “suppression” when all their attempts don’t work..

  2. Ridge says:

    I understand and appreciate the author’s overarching point, but I think he tries to define “democracy” in an overly narrow and unhelpful way. We don’t allow 6 year-olds to vote because they are “uninformed citizen[s] who may not be prepared and ready to vote.” If one believes that a society can still be a “democracy” with this restriction, then in the literal sense it’s not true that there is NO case for “restrictions based on the quality of the voter” in a democracy. I think the real debate centers around whether requiring more of voters to be able to cast their ballots would produce a healthier democracy. Below is an excerpt from an email exchange I had with my girlfriend’s father arguing why I don’t think that’s the case. I don’t think it’s the best argument in the world, and I’ll be the first to admit I could be wrong, but I think at the very least it’s more convincing to someone inclined to support more voting restrictions than a purely “you’re anti-democracy” argument:

    “[The idea one should take personal responsibility to vote] reminds me of a forum I went to that discussed Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, which argued that a more perfect form of government would be one in which those who are most knowledgeable have the most say (I think he calls it an “epistocracy”). I actually can buy into the notion that those who know the most about public policy would probably be the best at crafting it. I fear, though, that those most motivated to overcome hurdles to cast their vote are not the most knowledgeable, but the most radical.

    My (unfounded) theory is that “apolitical” type people would help pick less polarizing candidates that focus on “kitchen table issues” if they would just actually vote. Now, will opening up more early voting days/automatic registration get these people to vote? Probably not, but somehow incentivizing this 40-some+% of Americans to vote could add some ‘sanity’ to the radical partisans who currently vote in primaries.”

    • Ridge says:

      Though I will acknowledge that, (1) As is often the case the GOP’s primary arguments for the GA laws are being made in bad faith so there’s no “winning” argument against them, and (2) Yeah the “moderate” voter myth is at the core of my argument, but what I meant is that a good portion of the non-voting public is probably less concerned with the political debacle of the day on Twitter than your average primary voter, so even if their policy preferences are not “moderate,” the issues most salient to them are probably ones relevant to your average American that aren’t currently making headlines.

    • Jim Danielson says:

      I’m going to basically talk out loud, spewing from the top of my head.

      I would suggest one problem is not just low information voters, it’s voters ensconced in propaganda systems, especially (but not entirely) the right wing.

      The second is the slippery slope problem. In this case it isn’t a fallacy, there are many historical and current cases of voting restrictions being used to game the system or as a cover for racism, religious or other bigotry. We can add in bigotry against the disabled if being a lower IQ is a factor and I don’t see how it can be ruled out without invasive tests.

      Lots of countries (if not all) have low information voters. United States isn’t courting authoritarianism with a federal political system that can barely get anything done because of low information voters. The problems are systemic and many.

      OTOH, perhaps the US should go back to landowners only get to vote. White land owners.
      That’s sarcasm, BTW, but that is the opinion of some. Some believe only Christians, some only white Christians, some only Evangelicals should be allowed to vote.
      As pointed out by Bernstein, there’s the rub. When we decide who doesn’t get to vote a system is created where those in power get to use that system as a power grab. Which is exactly the problem seen today. Pointing out that children don’t get to vote because of reduced capacity doesn’t get past the problem.

      “…“apolitical” type people would help pick less polarizing candidates that focus on “kitchen table issues” if they would just actually vote.”

      My theory is the left elects almost no one that is polarizing. It’s the right and their media and strict observance to talking points and refusing to act in good faith creates an appearance of left polarization. Along with a large number of right leaning churches/preachers. It isn’t “both sides”, one side elects lunatics, deeply misinformed people and extremely polarizing candidates. The last election had the largest turnout in a very long time and the right continued to elect nuts and extremists.
      The problem wasn’t the apolitical, it was an entire media ecosystem geared towards radicalizing it’s consumers. It’s intent may not have been to radicalize them but the constant and ever increasing hysteria required to keep them voting (and donating / spending money on right wing grifts) has had that effect and the entire system has become self evolving, self perpetuating ever more extreme ecosystem.

      According to the right Obama was polarizing, the antichrist, a communist, a Kenyan Muslim (and likes Dijon mustard and wore tan suits). In fact he was a slightly right of center candidate and president. Hillary (and her husband) was the subject of a decade of investigations, mud slinging and other attacks. She was even more right wing than Obama. But her emails! got enough apolitical voters to sway the election to Trump.
      Al Franken resigned from congress over a tasteless joke, condemned by Democrats while the right is silent on Matt Gaetz.
      Polarizing politicians is a loaded phrase and it doesn’t just depend on if voters are ensconced in a media infrastructure (left/right), the reality of America right now is it depends on where you live, work, play. We are social creatures and much of what we believe is picked up as social cues, including second hand news stories or a radio or TV playing in the background at a diner or work.

      You assert not everyone should be allowed to vote yet you put forward nothing on what the criteria would be between those who can and those who can’t and why one should and another shouldn’t. Nor do I see how an apolitical person’s vote should be better than one of these mystery people who wouldn’t be allowed to vote. I don’t know if you’ve thought about what these should be or what it would look like, how it would work without being abused.

      Personally, I think the US is screwed. I see no way of getting the right out of the ever increasing crazy bubble they are in. I would have thought January 6 would have knocked sense into enough and given Fox News a jolt to get it’s act together, but no. The power and money interest, the propaganda has had it’s effect. Those Republicans who did act in good faith are being excised, punished or their power is being taken.
      The slide continues.

      • Ridge says:

        Touché on the right electing nut-jobs while Democrats favor more moderate candidates and it not really being a “both-sides” problem in that sense. My point is more that saying “you are anti-democracy” just isn’t really a very effective way to persuade people to reject measures that make voting more inconvenient. Nor is employing hyperbole to say that having less early voting days, or increasing restrictions on absentee ballots, or requiring an ID is a “return of Jim Crow,” or “the death of democracy,” or whatever. Yeah it’s bad policy but it’s facially neutral: it’s hardly a bill that says “only white landowners can vote,” and I’m just not clear on what pretending it is gets you at the end of the day.

        I think we should make it super easy to vote, but to persuade people this is the case we’re going to have to come up with a coherent argument of why more people voting is a good thing. My “grand theory” of the current state of American electoral politics is that Democrats clearly have much more popular and well thought out public policy stances, but “woke” liberals are so damn annoying and their victimization rhetoric is so alienating that people don’t bother to vote for Democrats. Presumably some of these voters also don’t like right-wing nut jobs so they just don’t vote at all. We would be a lot better off if these people would vote in Republican primaries and elect more moderate candidates, or in Democratic primaries for candidates that unequivocally reject such unpopular rhetoric (yeah, Democratic presidential primaries already pick more moderate candidate but presumably greater participation in the party by people who aren’t part of the “Twitter woke” could help the party be perceived as more widely appealing than it currently is).

        On your last note, I actually do see “hope” for America because I think the hyper-partisan era we’re in just isn’t built to last. America has never been perfect and it never will be but at the very least today’s electoral problems won’t be tomorrow’s. The whole notion that corporations are starting to support left-wing social policy, which in turn is triggering right-wing politicians to support left-wing economic policies is some evidence of changing winds (who would’ve thought Marco Rubio would support a vote to unionize??).

        More broadly, I think there are likely to be triggering events that shatter the current “perfectly-sorted by party” issue divide: for example, as coastal cities began to experience more climate related flooding, coastal voters may become more likely to support federal aid to mitigate this regardless of party, while mid-Western voters may reject this. In this instance, NC Coastal conservatives and NYC liberals would have aligned interests. This particular hypothetical may or may not come to fruition, but I use it to illustrate the idea that unforeseen events are bound to shake up the status quo. Now whether things will be “better,” is an unanswerable question, but I think they are bound to be different at the very least.

  3. R. Jenrette says:

    Stupid and/or ignorant people have the same rights as any other human to vote and defend their rights. In a democracy just who is it who has the moral right to decide they can’t?

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