The title of this blog gives me pause. Does the notion that uninformed voters should not vote really need to be explained? Do we live in a society where such an obviously correct assertion is not generally accepted by society at large? Apparently we do.
I recently heard a radio interview of a former state senator in my home state. He was upset with the reported fact that my home state is at or near the bottom of the list when it comes to the percentage of citizens who vote. His goal is to help change that status. When the interviewer suggested that the former senator must surely agree that we want citizens to have a basic understanding of the issues before voting, the former senator disagreed. Paraphrasing, he said that it doesn’t matter whether voters are informed. What is important is that the state’s voting statistics improve. The interviewer then conceded that there is a “civic responsibility to vote”. I also read a recent opinion column in my local paper wherein the columnist asserted that “the greater the participation in the voting process, the better and stronger our country is in the long run.”
These few local examples exemplify a national attitude that has developed relatively quickly over the past several years. The notion is that voting is an inherent good. The effort has been to turn out the vote, no matter how uninformed. Such campaigns seldom make any reference at all to the necessity of becoming informed prior to voting. “Just vote” seems to be the mantra. I’ve heard at least one nationally known, highly informed commentator repeat the mantra that voting is good, without any reference to whether the voter knows anything at all about the candidates or the issues.
Though I’m not sure what has driven this perspective, I am sure that it makes no sense. At best, the mass of uninformed votes it induces simply cancel each out and leave us with a result which reflects the votes of the more informed and interested voters. In any other scenario, what results is damaging to any democratic system of governance. In essence, the results of our elections are being influenced by voters whose criteria for making a selection may be little more insightful than flipping a coin.
There are many human activities which we recognize as inherently good. Exercising, eating healthfully, getting plenty of sleep, limiting stress and developing a positive, happy outlook are all deemed by society to be inherently good activities. Unlike such activities, voting does not necessarily result in a good or helpful outcome. The decision that is made in the voting booth can ultimately be good or bad for society. Judgment based on careful study and consideration is necessary. A person who votes without exercising judgment based on careful consideration makes no positive contribution to society. In fact, by diluting the votes of those who have undertaken their civic responsibilities in a serious way, such a person undercuts the process and provides a disservice to society at large.
Voting is simply one step in the complex process we employ to govern ourselves. In no other human or societal activity do we urge incompetent people to perform a function simply for the sake of performing it. Likewise, in no other human or societal activity do we seek the input of unknowledgeable people in making important decisions. For example, families do not typically seek the input of every member in deciding whether to make a major purchase or whether the primary income earner should accept a new job. Businesses do not typically seek the input of all stakeholders in deciding whether to change accounting systems or marketing plans. Charitable institutions do not typically take a vote of donors to determine how best to utilize existing funds to achieve their charitable goals. Surgeons do not seek the input of everyone else in the operating room when making a crucial decision. The reason is obvious. Families, businesses, charitable institutions and surgeons want to make the correct decisions when it comes to such important matters. Accordingly, they leave those decisions to the people with the most knowledge.
Of course, everyone meeting basic legal criteria have a right to vote. But that is no explanation for why society should encourage the uninformed to exercise that right. Citizens also have the right to free speech and the right to own firearms. Society doesn’t go out of its way to encourage citizens to exercise their right to free speech or to acquire and keep firearms. Criminals have the right not to incriminate themselves. Though they are informed of that right, society does not encourage them to exercise it. Society is far better off when guilty suspects waive that right and confess to crimes they have committed. The fact that voting may be deemed a right is no excuse for urging citizens to exercise that right.
In the radio interview of the former state senator, he posited that even if many voters are uninformed, the right decision will still be made by the electorate. He offered no explanation for such a ridiculous assertion, presumably because there is none. Uninformed voters will make their decisions in the voting booth based on something. It might be which name they like better. It might be who a friend or family member recommended. It might be who looked the best in television advertisements. Uninformed voters, by definition, will not make their decisions in the voting booth upon their own judgment exercised only after having studied and considered the issues and the candidates. At best, the uninformed voters will cancel each other out. In other words, the best that we can hope for is that their efforts will result in an outcome that mirrors the outcome which would have occurred if they had not voted at all. Any other result damages the democratic process because the decisions we make are less likely to be based upon relevant information and good judgment.
Society should leave uninformed and disinterested citizens alone. Anyone who is so disinterested in our self governance and the processes required to maintain it so as not to bother to vote does us all a favor by staying home on election day. The uniformed, disinterested citizen is almost universally inclined not to vote. That instinct is correct. The rest of us should not try to persuade him otherwise.