Democracy is not conditional on the “quality” of a person’s attitudes

True rule by the people demands that everyone can participate in the political process

Editor’s Note: I have taken a mini vacation to the Shenandoah Valley this weekend and probably won’t get around to sending out the usual Sunday email recapping the week in data and politics. I did find some time this morning to make a cup of coffee and sit outside, with the attached beautiful view of the blue hills, to write a short post on democracy and public opinion. I’d be pleased to hear your thoughts — leave them below or in my inbox. (The weekly subscribers thread will still happen this evening.)

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Republicans are currently in the middle of passing dozens of new laws restricting access to the polls or making voting generally harder. This is an objectionable practice from the starting gate, but I want to address a particular wrinkle in the story of disenfranchisement. Please read these few few paragraphs from a CNN article about one of the proposed restrictions in Arizona, and the comments from the GOP chairman of the Government and Elections Committee:

SB 1485, which has already passed the state Senate and now heads to the full House, would have the state send notices to people who are on the permanent early voting list but have not participated in the last four elections -- so, the 2018 primaries and midterm election and the 2020 primaries and election -- asking if they want to continue to receive ballots. Those who do not respond would be removed.

Sen. Michelle Ugenti-Rita, the Scottsdale Republican who sponsored the measure, said it is a "clean-up bill" to ensure ballots are not being created for and mailed to those who have moved, died or don't want them.

"On its face, it would make sense that you would want to reduce opportunities for fraud, undo influence, manipulation. That should be something that we all agree on, right?" she said. "Allowing voters to sign up in perpetuity does increase the opportunity for things to go wrong."

Rep. John Kavanagh, a Fountain Hills Republican who chairs the Government and Elections Committee that advanced Ugenti-Rita's measure on a party-line vote Wednesday, said GOP lawmakers are concerned about what happens to ballots automatically sent to people who have moved or have died. 

He acknowledged that the concerns about those ballots being cast fraudulently are "anecdotal, because obviously if nobody's there and they throw it away, you wouldn't know. And if nobody's there and they vote it and do a good duplicate of the signature, you wouldn't know." 

"There's a fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans," Kavanagh said. "Democrats value as many people as possible voting, and they're willing to risk fraud. Republicans are more concerned about fraud, so we don't mind putting security measures in that won't let everybody vote -- but everybody shouldn't be voting."

He pointed to Democrats' emphasis on registering voters and pursuing those who have not returned ballots -- tactics that Republicans have successfully implemented in other swing states -- and said doing so means that "you can greatly influence the outcome of the election if one side pays people to actively and aggressively go out and retrieve those ballots." 

"Not everybody wants to vote, and if somebody is uninterested in voting, that probably means that they're totally uninformed on the issues," Kavanagh said. "Quantity is important, but we have to look at the quality of votes, as well."

There is something I find deeply repulsive about the idea that the democratic process should be limited to people who are smart and informed enough about politics to make “good” or “rational” decisions. My nausea is caused in part from the history of people using this reasoning to justify racist poll taxes and Jim Crow laws. This was the “neutral” justification for literacy tests, which placed an undue burden on black voters between 1865 and 1965 as many were de-facto excluded from educated society by centuries of slavery and subjugation at the hands of the white majority.

But the violation of basic democratic principles — that everyone is equal in the eyes of our social contract — are even more objectionable once you look under the hood.

To be clear, I understand the appeal of the idea. If you view the democratic process as a function, producing outputs (government policy) given a set of inputs (the voting decisions of each citizen), high-quality outputs would necessarily rely on high-quality inputs. In this theory, individual citizens have to be informed and educated about politics and government to producing good governance. Badly informed people make bad decisions, right?

Wrong! There are a number of places where this assumption that ignorance begets bad governance goes wrong. First, there’s something that political scientists call “the miracle of aggregation,” which posits that averaging individuals’ preferences for government outputs into a single reading — either a poll or an election result — produces a better informed public than the “error” in the average person’s individual preferences would suggest. If you imagine there is a “right” position on defense funding, for example, the theory states that any person’s individual preferences deviate randomly from the ideal, introducing uncertainty in the measure but not significant bias. Issue advocacy groups also help highlight the attitudes of better informed segments of the population.

The miracle of aggregation likely does not work for every policy or issue domain. The public can be biased against positions on salient policies by the media, leadership, or product of underlying societal or cultural trends. But the pattern is a good way of showing the faults in the traditional argument that only informed citizens ought to take part in democracy. 

Political parties also help to hedge aggregate decisions against individuals’ idiosyncratic deviations from their “ideal” positions. Factions help organize people into groups that have their interests at heart. If you do not have an attitude on government funding for childcare, for example, you can consult your friends and family and social groups to ask what they think — or you can adopt the default position of the party you affiliate with. Usually, this will help you come out on top. This is why political scientists refer to parties as heuristics in the decision-making process; they serve as shortcuts to the “correct” decision without actually being informed about the issue.

Finally, we should consider that there are factors other than information that are necessary for good government. Citizens must act morally and with orientation toward the collective good, things we are taught by our families and social networks during our formative years. Good inputs into the democratic process are as much a product of education as they are an overall good-faith engagement with the people around us.

A person’s life experiences can also help inform their views; our aggregate agreement that living in poverty generally sucks leads to higher demand for social spending to increase base incomes. That happens even before you read studies about the effects of poverty on life outcomes or the effects of spending on poverty. Experience also teaches us which areas of life we want our leaders to prioritize. What makes the common person (read: “average American”) so common is exactly what made them valuable to the process.

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I hope this short essay helps to reorient your thinking on what makes people valuable in a democracy. It is not their education or the “quality” of their thoughts. It’s in the name; democracy, where the people (demos) rule (kratos). The only legitimate approach is to consider everyone’s input as equally valuable.