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Ignorant Voters

Krissy Clark

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An absentee voter ballot
(SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)


You might be busy this weekend getting ready for election day. Pouring over voter guides, fact-checking candidate claims, reading op-eds for a variety of view points, getting informed. If you're doing any of those things, however, you are different than most Americans. Here are some scary statistics: Only two out of five Americans can name the three branches of the federal government. Only one in seven can find Iraq on a map. A majority don't know the name of their Congressional representative. Weekend America's Krissy Clark is a big fan of democracy, but after hearing facts like these, she started to get nervous about election day.

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The conventional wisdom is that our democracy can handle all the ignorance. Most political scientists find solace in a little thing called The Miracle of Aggregation.

Or, what I call "The Coin Toss Theory." Take a coin, toss it in the air over and over again, and half the time it'll land heads, half the time tails.

The Coin Toss Theory says ignorant voters work pretty much the same way. Their votes are random, but evenly divided. Which means they cancel each other out.

So even if 90 percent of voters have no idea what they're talking about, it doesn't matter. The 10 percent who are thoughtful, reasonable and informed, will cast the votes that count. Candidates can focus on them, and democracy is in good hands.

There is just one problem with the coin toss theory, according to Rick Shenkman, a historian at George Mason University. Ignorant voters don't actually flip coins.

Instead, to mix metaphors, "Ignorant voters are sitting ducks," he says. And perfect targets for political trickery. Shenkman, who is the author of the subtly titled book "Just How Stupid Are We?," argues that uninformed voters are not divided 50-50 on one side or the other. They're up for grabs, practically begging to be taken advantage of.

"In the absence of facts, myths end up driving our politics," he says. "I have yet to meet a politician who, when tempted, won't wind up using some myth to try to provoke a response from the audience."

And the next thing you know, you've got terrorists in living rooms and rumors over book burnings. Or more benign myths, like The Rags-to-Riches Candidate. The Hero. All these tropes play on our passions, not our reason.

"I hate to sound like a 19th century school marm," Shenkman says. "But you know what, it's not asking Americans too much to spend five or six minutes a day, taking one big issue on the front page of the paper, read all the way to the end, even if it goes past page 38. Everyone can be an informed voter, and that's what I want us to do."

Economist Bryan Caplan has a slightly more extreme strategy when it comes to the question of voter ignorance. "A much better ethos," he says, "would be to stop encouraging people to vote if they don't know what's going on." Caplan is the author of the book "The Myth of the Rational Voter." "Right now if you want to become a U.S. citizen and vote, you have to pass a test of civic knowledge," he says. "I don't see why Americans shouldn't have to pass the same test that they give to naturalized citizens."

Caplan is quick to point out he would not want voting rights to hinge on race or gender or income. Just being well-informed. "And of course if you take a look at the test," Caplan adds, "you realize probably most Americans could not pass it."

I take Caplan up on his suggestion, and head to the corner of 16th and Potrero in San Francisco, to a bus stop, where I ask people how much they know about the basics of the U.S. government. Almost everyone I talk to here says they're planning to vote in this election. I start the questions. First, what's the main philosophical difference between the Republican and Democratic parties? I'm met with a lot of awkward silences, a few guesses, and only one person who gets close.

I move on to geography. One guy can show me where Iraq is on the blank world map I pull out. Most can't find the U.S.A. They keep pointing to Africa, or Greenland.

Next up: Public affairs. Roe versus Wade was a big subject in the presidential debate this week, so I ask people to explain its significance. "No, I'm not familiar with that," says one woman, a fitness trainer in a red track suit. "Roe versus Wade?" says a security guard headed to work. "I can't help you with that one."

"Are they politicians or what?" asks a man on a bicycle.

At this point, I think to myself, a voting test doesn't sound like such a bad idea. And then something interesting happens. I break down and tell the man on the bike what Roe versus Wade is. And as soon as I do, people at the bus stop who'd been wary of me, bored with my questions, snap to attention.

"Well, if you asked me about legalizing abortion, I don't think it would be a good deal," says the bike man. A man leaning on the bus shelter, nibbling on some chicken McNuggets, overhears. "But what about an eight-year-old-- raped--and she gets pregnant from someone. She didn't have a choice, but she has to carry a child when she is a child herself and she's had her childhood taken from her."

"She still has no right to take that child's life," says another man, a retired carpenter. A polite but passionate debate erupts at the bus stop. For the most part, the people involved scored low on my civic knowledge test. But they definitely have opinions. Who knows if they're based on facts, or myths?

And that's the tricky question. How do you gauge someone's political I.Q.? Rick Shenkman, the historian who calls ignorant voters sitting ducks, says it would be impossible. "It would be too divisive to have a civic literacy test. I don't want to exclude people, or shrink democracy," especially given the bloody fights many Americans have had to wage over the years to get the right to vote.

But Shenkman says people should know enough about history and civics "so that we can at least have a conversation. And that's what democracy is all about, is having a conversation." It can make waiting for your bus a lot more interesting. And it's not so bad for the future of the country, either.

Comments

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  • By Rodney Elkins

    From Beckley, WV, 11/03/2008

    I constantly encounter people at work, church,and in public who make their decision to vote on one single issue. Anyone who can say the will vote for someone because they support abortion, gay marriage,or any one single issue is an ignorant voter.Some of my immediate family had voted for Bush because of his stance on abortion alone. They cut their own throats because they were unwilling to look at other issues (rather ignorant if you ask me). The main stream media should be held accountable for reporting only the issues that cause conflict instead of informing the public which is what the media has a patriotic duty to do. Any media corp. who raises conflict on a one-sided agenda should face criminal charges.

    By G.J. Gardner

    From Ft. Wayne, IN, 10/25/2008

    Bryan Caplan hits the nail on the head. All the demagogues would get riled up about a poll test of course, but that doesn't mean it would be a bad idea.
    It would behoove us to remember that democracy traditionally meant 'mob rule' and was looked down upon with universal derision by the Founding Fathers as well as enlightened statesmen and philosophers in Europe. No democracy can prosper with an uneducated population. The current state of the US and the past two Presidential elections are prime examples. Look what democracy hath wrought.

    By Critta Magowen

    10/23/2008

    While both comments below display the kind of uniformed grasping onto an irrevalent issue while ignroing the meat of issue that so Ironically suits this article, I digress. The honest truth is, stupid people have as much right to randomly cast their vote as do well informed people. While this is the crux of dirty, flashy, and all around garbage politics displayed by both parties from about one month after the previous election, there is nothing anyone can do to stop it. The way I see it is we have two hopes. A. Our capatialistc economy invents something supremely entertaining to stupid people, that is also very dangerous. B. Our educational system steps up to the modern "plate", and parents take some responsibility for their deadbeat kids learning something. The latter by far the more relevent factor.

    By Jim Sullivan

    From Wyoming, MI, 10/19/2008

    You fail your own test by regurgitating the Republican propaganda that the difference between the parties is the size of government. The current administration should be your first clue that this isn't even true. Politics is about power. The difference is that the Republicans favor concentrating power in the hands of the few, while the Democrats favor empowering all Americans including the little guy.

    By John Edwards

    From Tucson, AZ, 10/18/2008

    "Republicans traditionally favor less government." Really? How about when it comes to one of the major themes of your feature story, abortion?

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