Bernstein: The myth of the ignorant voter

Jonathan Bernstein

From the department of not understanding politics, Neil deGrasse Tyson tweets:

“Candidate Endorsements matter if you’d rather have a famous person, an organization, or media entity do your thinking for you”

Tyson, a prominent astrophysicist and science commentator is criticizing those of us who rely on this kind of information to vote.

It’s possible that he skips a lot of elections. Most citizens, even those who vote regularly, do. Or he may carefully study the policies and qualifications of each candidate in each election for which he’s eligible to vote, and all the bond measures and initiatives, too.

I somehow doubt it. To fully examine each of those elections would practically be a full-time job.

I’ve now voted 188 times in the current four-year election cycle (that is, since November 2012). I’ve voted for president and for members of Congress and for the Texas Legislature on down the ballot to the school board. I’m about as informed a voter as they come, and I don’t feel remotely qualified to develop independent views on half the issues that come up and on many candidates for lower offices.

Here in San Antonio, Texas, the local government has in the last few years debated a complex water issue; the use of city money to help a higher-level minor league team move here; light rail and an intercity rail alliance with Austin; annexation of new areas; various highway expansions; full-time salaries for elected officials, and more than I can remember. Do I have informed views of those issues? Not really; and while I can read (for example) economic impact reports, I’m not going to do it.

Yet I’m quite comfortable that I made good choices most times, if we can define “good choices” as “how I would have voted had I done more research.” Why? Because I take the shortcuts used by most voters, informed or not. The biggest one is party affiliation. If the party endorses a candidate, you have a good idea how that person will behave in office. As for the issues, your party’s support or opposition can tell you a lot about a specific proposal, or at least enough.

We can also use other sources – such as officials we learn to rely on over time. On local water issues, for example, I know nothing but I trust a particular city council member who works hard to get things right. As political scientist Hans Noel has pointed out, voting isn’t an individual choice at all. It’s “about acting in concert with others.” It’s perfectly responsible to vote based on endorsements from the “others” you know.

So don’t let anyone shame you into not voting or from other political action because you (supposedly) don’t know enough. Sure, educate yourself, but you don’t need to know the details of zoning regulations, nuclear arms treaties or health-care policy to figure out which candidate to support, or how to vote on ballot measures. If you can figure out what group or groups matter to you when it comes to politics and government, and learn which way those groups are voting, you’re going to get it right almost every time.

© 2016, Bloomberg View



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