Cancel ‘Uninformed’ Voters? Democracy Won’t Allow It


In the wake of the Georgia election law, we’re hearing some Republicans argue that fewer voters mean better voters. In Mississippi, an election official is worried that automatic voter registration will produce “an uninformed citizen who may not be prepared and ready to vote.” And in the National Review, Kevin Williamson contends that fewer voters are better because most of them aren’t sufficiently informed to make good decisions.

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.

The third justification for democracy is that it protects the marginalized and weak better than any other form of government. If the point is to help the many, then the many should have the vote — that should be self-evident. Alas, none of those who would restrict the franchise will allow for that connection.

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.

1. Carla Norrlöf at the Monkey Cage on China, Russia and the dollar.

2. Here at Bloomberg Opinion, Minxin Pei on Republicans and China.

3. Kumar Ramanathan on how presidents use executive branch vacancies.

4. Neil Irwin on supply lines.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering politics and policy. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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