Getting Voters to Focus on the Things They Actually Know About

National elections are flashier, but voters are often far more knowledgeable about local issues. We need to get them more engaged.
December 6, 2016
By Mark Chou  |  Contributor
An associate professor of politics at Australian Catholic University

Several weeks ago, I cast a postal ballot in a local election that was being held in Victoria, the Australian state where I live. But instead of paying the usual attention that I've become accustomed to before voting in both state and federal elections, I'm embarrassed to admit that what I did was a lesson in what not to do.

While stirring pumpkin soup and taking the rubbish out, I briefly glanced at the biographies of the candidates before hastily numbering the ballot paper in order of my vague preferences. This revelation is only worsened by the fact that I spend my professional life studying democracy and elections and teaching university students about the merits of participating in political life.

Worst of all, though, I actually do care and have views about my local area's needs. When I run and drive through my suburb, use the local amenities or deal with the council regarding permits, local laws, recycling or environmental issues, I get a clear sense of what's being done well and what could be done differently. I'm abreast of the area's political problems and possibilities in a way that I'm just not on national political issues.

But for some reason, maybe because I thought the stakes were lower, I ended up caring less about an election where my vote could have been informed by local knowledge than for another election halfway across the world that I wasn't even eligible to vote in. I'm referring, of course, to this year's American presidential contest.

I only realized later that this wrongheaded approach to elections -- where citizens think that national elections are somehow more important than local elections -- reveals a deeper irony striking at the heart of electoral politics.

Modern democracies have become specialists in getting citizens to pay little attention to elections in which their expertise and experience might actually lead to informed decision-making in favor of those bigger, flashier national elections where their relative ignorance and inexperience on the issues are likely to trigger unintended consequences and political regrets.

How many of us can say with certainty that we have the expertise and experience to make informed decisions on such issues as the economy, the environment and foreign policy that are most frequently tackled in national elections? Not as many as we'd like to think, according to a new survey on electoral and economic literacy by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni. The findings suggest that few Americans "possess the knowledge of political figures and understanding of political institutions necessary to participate meaningfully in the political process."

The economy offers a good example. When 52 percent of Americans don't know that it's the Federal Reserve that decides when the Treasury prints more money and 39 percent aren't aware that the same institution isn't responsible for collecting taxes, we have to ask: Are these really the individuals we want assessing complex national and global economic matters like those presented by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in this year's presidential campaign?

Prominent thinkers like Georgetown University's Jason Brennan and George Mason University's Ilya Somin certainly don't think so. Both have argued that what voters don't know should effectively disqualify them from taking part in elections where such issues form the core of what's being decided.

Writing days after the U.S. election, Brennan brashly contended that "Trump owes his victory to the uninformed." Somin took a more nuanced view. Public ignorance wasn't the only factor behind Trump's appeal, he argued, many voted for Trump because "they hoped he would bring 'change.'" Unfortunately, as Somin added, voting for change without having properly understood and considered its ramifications can prove disastrous.

Both scholars have proposed remedies and reforms to combat voter ignorance. For his part, Brennan has attempted to make the case for an alternative to democracy he calls "epistocracy," a political system in which the votes of knowledgeable citizens count for more than those of their less-knowledgeable counterparts.

Of course, how we might implement such a controversial idea in a democracy is far from straightforward. So Brennan puts forward another proposal: a "simulated oracle." The idea is that citizens vote for policy preferences through public polls that at the same time collect their demographic information and test their basic political knowledge. With this information in hand, statisticians can calculate the public's "enlightened preferences" -- what political agendas they would support if they were properly informed.

I'd like to add to Brennan's and Somin's proposals one of my own. It begins where this piece began: with local elections. Often forgotten or devalued compared to state and federal elections, local elections may prove the exception to the trend Brennan and Somin highlight.

In his book "Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy," Eric Oliver of the University of Chicago notes that, contrary to popular belief, "local voters are much more likely to embody the classical notions of an informed and rational polis than are national voters." Local elections tend to be dominated by long-term residents who have both vested interests in and substantial knowledge about what's being decided. And local elections are intimate affairs not frequently fought along ideological lines. This all leads to better, more informed decision-making.

In democracies like America's and Australia's, it's not realistic to expect the federal system to give way to epistocracy, simulated oracles or other models of political meritocracy. But luckily, nothing so drastic is necessary to begin moving in this direction.

Correcting our priorities when it comes to local elections is a good first step. Implementing simple reforms such as changing the dates of local elections to coincide with state and national elections could increase voter turnout by as much as 30 percent and encourage a mindset that the former is as important as the latter. This would give citizens increased incentive to focus on an election in which their knowledge and lived experience uniquely qualify them to make political decisions.

For state elections, where we're likely to know more about the issues being decided than in national elections but less than we know about the issues under consideration in our local communities, citizens can be encouraged to use apps such as BallotReady or Vote Compass before entering polling booths. Short of a simulated oracle, these apps come as close to identifying a voter's enlightened preferences as we have.

With national elections, where citizens are likely to know the least about the issues being contested, we might consider a more explicit prompt - or "nudge." John Hasnas of Georgetown University and Annette Hasnas, a student at the New School of Northern Virginia, suggest that we can nudge voters in the voting booth by matching their general policy preferences, which they're prompted to enter prior to casting their votes, with the policy preferences of candidates on the ballot.

The value of nudging voters this way is that it may cause them to rethink their political allegiances and which candidate or party best represents their views. And if that leads them to become better engaged in the local elections in which they already have far more informed views, so much the better for democracy and for our civic life.