The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Political ignorance and early voting

Some conservative commentators – including co-blogger Eugene Kontorovich and John McGinnis, and former Justice Department voting rights specialist J. Christian Adams, have recently criticized early voting, on the grounds that it exacerbates the problem of political ignorance.

I agree that widespread political ignorance is a serious problem. But I doubt that early voting makes it any worse than it would be otherwise. As leading voting rights scholar Rick Hasen points out, social science research shows that early voters are, on average, better-informed than those who vote on election day. They also tend to have stronger partisan loyalties, and are therefore unlikely to change their minds based on last-minute election ads or news developments.

There is always the possibility that some dramatic last-minute revelation will occur that would change the minds of even relatively well-informed and strongly partisan voters. But that possibility exists no matter when people vote. If everyone casts their ballots on November 5, there is always a chance that a major scandal will be revealed on November 6 that would have changed the outcome of the election. As a practical matter, allowing people to vote a few weeks before the official election day doesn’t greatly increase this kind of risk. By the time we get to the last few weeks of an election, the media and opposition researchers have already thoroughly gone over the records of candidates for major offices, searching for scandals and misdeeds.

Moreover, many last-minute revelations are distractions rather than genuinely useful information. For example, Adams cites the case of the last-minute revelation of George W. Bush’s decades-old drunk driving conviction in 2000. I am no fan of Bush’s. But I think that revelation wasn’t meaningfully relevant to the decision before the electorate in 2000. Although Bush did indeed have a drinking problem when he was young, no one familiar with the evidence doubted that Bush was sober in 2000, and had been for many years. The same goes for campaign revelations that Bill Clinton and Barack Obama had probably used marijuana during their college days.

But, although I agree with Hasen that conservative critiques of early voting are overblown, I think he goes too far in this part of his argument, versions of which are sometimes advanced by other liberal commentators:

[T]here is a fundamental divide between liberals and conservatives about what voting is for: Conservatives see voting as about choosing the “best” candidate or “best” policies (meaning limits on who can vote, when, and how might make the most sense), and liberals see it as about the allocation of power among political equals. Cutting back on early voting fits with the conservative idea of choosing the “best” candidate by restraining voters from making supposed rash decisions, rather than relying on them to make choices consistent with their interests.

Hasen relies on a false dichotomy here. There is no reason why voting can’t be about both choosing the best candidate or policies, and allocation of power between equals. Indeed, the latter conception of voting only makes sense if the “equals” can actually use that power effectively. Their ability to do so is impaired if they often don’t know what policies they are voting for, or don’t understand their likely effects. That’s why concern about political ignorance is far from confined to conservatives (or libertarians). Leading liberal scholars such as Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, Larry Bartels, and Richard Shenkman, have all written important books and articles decrying the problem as well. They recognize that ignorance is one of the main factors preventing voters -including the poor and disadvantaged – from using the political process to “make choices consistent with their interests,” in Hasen’s words.

Finally, it is important to recognize that ethical voters should not in fact make choices based purely on their narrow self-interest. Officials elected to public office rule over all of society, not just those who voted for them. As John Stuart Mill put it, voting is not just an individual choice, but the exercise of “power over others.” For this reason, voters have a duty to consider the impact of their choices on all of society, not just on themselves or their families. Making such decisions responsibly often requires a substantial degree of knowledge – more than most voters currently have. Early voting is not the cause of that problem, and probably does not make it any worse than it would be otherwise. But ignorance is a serious danger nonetheless.