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If Democratic Theory Calls for Informed Voters, Why is It Democratic to Expand the Franchise?

Jennifer L. Hochschild

Harvard University

August 20, 2009

Three uncontroversial points add up to a paradox: 1) Almost every democratic theorist or democratic political actor sees an informed electorate as essential to good democratic practice. Citizens must know who or what they are choosing and why - hence the need for publicly funded education, and the rights to free speech, assembly, press, and movement. 2) In most if not all democratic polities, the proportion of the population granted the suffrage has consistently expanded, and seldom contracted, over the past two centuries. Most observers agree that expanding the franchise makes a state more democratic. 3) Each expansion of the suffrage brings in, on average, people who are less politically informed or less broadly educated than those already eligible to vote.

Putting these three uncontroversial points together leads to the conclusion that as democracies become more democratic, their decision-making processes become of lower quality. That conclusion presumably is controversial, and few have addressed it since the early nineteenth century. This paper explicates the historical trajectory of democratization in the United States (although the basic argument is not specific to that country). It then offers several plausible explanations for the paradox: voters are not really that ignorant; the United States is not really a democracy; institutions substitute for voters' knowledge; and democracy does not, or does not primarily, need cognitively sophisticated citizens. I offer a few reflections on these explanations, but cannot genuinely dissolve the paradox.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 20

Keywords: democracy, citizen competence, enfranchisement, heuristics, American political history

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Date posted: August 22, 2009 ; Last revised: October 27, 2009

Suggested Citation

Hochschild, Jennifer L., If Democratic Theory Calls for Informed Voters, Why is It Democratic to Expand the Franchise? (August 20, 2009). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1458588 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1458588

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Jennifer L. Hochschild (Contact Author)
Harvard University ( email )
1737 Cambridge Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-496-0181 (Phone)
617-495-0438 (Fax)
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