Voter Participation: Is More Better?

Robust voter participation is fundamental to a healthy democracy. Do you agree with that assertion? Historically, we in the United States view it with a decidedly jaundiced eye. Eligibility to vote was originally the prerogative of individual states. The result in most cases was that only white, male, adult landowners could vote. There were exceptions of course, but that was pretty much the rule. Objectively, one cannot say that this approach was a failure, but over the years we have slowly expanded voter eligibility through amendments to our Constitution and through Supreme Court opinions.

However eligibility of different classes of legal residents isn’t the whole story. We also have a history of special limitations on even those who are qualified. Poll taxes, literacy tests, long residency requirements, registration, and others even more inventive have been used to restrict participation. Many of these impediments have been struck down by the courts, but others keep popping up in their place.

Today, the general view is that Democrats favor maximum participation, while Republicans seek to limit it. That is actually an over-simplification and in addition it was once quite the opposite in some locales. The reason for the current bias is obvious from this chart. PP-2014-06-12-polarization-5-01Higher percentages of Republicans than Democrats regularly vote. Increasing voter participation would thus tend to benefit Democrats, and they know it. Hillary Clinton has made this one of her main campaign issues. She rails against efforts by Republicans to impede participation and now has proposed automatic registration of all eligible voters when they turn 18 unless they actively choose to opt out. I assume she means that to apply to federal elections unless she intends to promote a constitutional amendment.

The argument for Hillary’s proposal is simple. It will make it easier to vote and should draw in those who can’t be bothered to register. The counter argument is amusingly similar. It will draw in those who can’t be bothered to register! Opponents argue that those uninterested or unable to go through the simple job of voter registration are probably civic idiots and shouldn’t vote anyway.

If we ignore the political arguments, the underlying question remains whether increasing voter participation is good for our political process or not. I am going to make the case that it is, but you shouldn’t be deluded that this is obvious. It isn’t, and our founding fathers didn’t just stumble onto their highly restricted approach.

Those who vote in large numbers tend to be those most committed to a political persuasion. Indeed as the chart above shows, the more committed they are, the more they participate. Such voters read political news, attend meetings, watch discussions on TV, and talk about political affairs with friends, neighbors and coworkers. They are knowledgeable, or at least more so than those whose interests lie elsewhere.

But wait just a minute. Is this really true? Does this interest and participation actually lead to greater knowledge and understanding? As any discussion with hardcore partisans shows, they know more facts, or at least information that purports to be factual. But are they truly better informed? The answer is almost certainly no, and here is why.

Voters of all stripes mostly listen to those who agree with them. Democrats read the NY Times and listen to MSNBC; Republicans read The Wall Street Journal and listen to Fox News. Most people’s definition of “expert” is “a credentialed person who agrees with me”. There have even been actual experiments that underscore this reality. Yale Law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues showed 1,500 people sample biographies of highly accomplished scientists alongside a summaries of their research. Then they asked whether the scientist was indeed an expert.

When the researchers’ results underscored the dangers of climate change, people who tended to worry about climate change were 72% more likely than those who are skeptics to agree that the researcher was a bona fide expert. But when the results indicate that the scientists conclude that climate change is not a major concern, people who tend to dismiss this issue were 54% more likely to see them as experts. This experiment was repeated for other subjects, like gun control, with the same result.

If we pick our information and our experts based on whether we agree with them or not, it is hardly a surprise that the most informed are often the most misled. People who are convinced that President Obama is not a citizen often have a tremendous amount of information about this topic. They know about rules for creating and recording birth records, details of residences and travels, etc. And they have convinced themselves of something which is simply untrue.

But it gets worse. When it comes to government and politics, few consequential facts are subject to direct, personal verification. Either the information isn’t available or it is too arcane for easy understanding. We are forced to rely on information sources that we trust. And because of the tendency to listen selectively to those with a common ax to grind, there is a real danger of confirmation bias.

The impact of this systematic reasoning error has been studied by political scientists Christopher Achens and Larry Bartels, using the 1966 election as a model. The question was whether voters knew the budget deficit had dropped during President Clinton’s first term (it had, and sharply). What they found will shake anyone who believes more information leads to a smarter electorate: how much voters knew about politics mattered less than which party they supported. deficitsThis chart shows perceptions of the budget deficit by party and information level. Republicans in the 80th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Democrats in the 20th percentile of political knowledge. Even more telling, Republicans in the 60th percentile of political knowledge were less likely to answer the question correctly than Republicans in the 10th percentile of political knowledge! The more they knew, the less it was likely to be true. Other experiments showed that self-deception among Democrats is equally as likely when the topics favor Republican ideas or politicians. Much of what appears to be informed political learning is nothing more than elaborate self-justification.

So how does this grim fact relate to the original question of whether increased voter participation is a good thing or not? We have to revisit the first chart about people who tend to vote regularly. Note that low participation rates are highest among the less involved, and hence as now know, the less likely to be convinced of things which are not true. Increased voter participation will preferentially bring these less contaminated voters into the fray. And that’s a good thing! Partisanship is normal and even healthy in a competitive democracy, but it’s not such an unalloyed good that we should be biasing the electorate toward hardcore partisans.