If Democracies Need Informed Voters, How Can They Thrive While Expanding Enfranchisement?
Election Law Journal 9 (2), June 2010
17 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 20 Jan 2015
Date Written: 2010
Three uncontroversial points sum to a paradox: 1) Almost every democratic theorist or democratic political actor sees an informed electorate as essential to good democratic practice. Citizens need to know who or what they are choosing and why – hence urgent calls for expansive and publicly funded education, and 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, and I, agree that expanding enfranchisement makes a state more democratic. 3) Most expansions of the suffrage bring 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 in terms of cognitive processing of issues and candidate choice. The paradox is both historical – why have democracies expanded the franchise to include relatively ignorant voters? – and normative – why should democracies expand the franchise to include relatively ignorant voters?
The article addresses both questions. First, I review the historical trajectory of democratization in the United States (although the argument is not specific to that country). I then describe plausible empirical explanations for the paradox: voters are not really that ignorant; the United States is not and never has been really a democracy; and institutions or electoral rules have been developed to substitute for voters’ knowledge. I also analyze plausible normative explanations for the paradox: democracy does not, or does not primarily, need cognitively sophisticated citizens; and democracy offers benefits that outweigh the deficits of citizens’ lack of knowledge. I offer a few reflections on both sets of explanations, but cannot genuinely dissolve the paradoxAbstract will be provided by author.
Keywords: enfranchisement, voting, democracy, political information
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