Tuesday, September 21, 2021
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Are you a well-informed voter? Does it matter?

🕐 3 min read

We have a strong if mistaken assumption that voters should be experts on political candidates, at least when it comes to those running for president. How does this assumption affect the reaction to Hillary Clinton’s recent health issue, for example, or to revelations about Donald Trump’s business practices? Or, for that matter, to our understanding of the policies the candidates articulate?

Let’s start with the policy part.

When it comes to their positions, candidates generally offer detailed information, freely available on their websites (Donald Trump is a partial exception, but even he sometimes talks about what he plans to do if he’s elected). So, as David Weigel of The Washington Post correctly points out, the people mainly responsible for voter ignorance are … the voters themselves.

The media spend more time on “horse race” and scandal reporting than on the candidates’ proposals, but that doesn’t mean policy is ignored. If voters really wanted more stories on actual proposals, the press would oblige. Horse race and scandal coverage isn’t what reporters or editors prefer. It’s what readers and viewers want, even if they subsequently complain about it – and about politicians who supposedly never explain what they would do in office.

If voters themselves are responsible for their own ignorance, then there’s a related point to make regarding the debate about early voting.

Jim Geraghty at National Review argues against early voting mainly because it creates gaps between the information possessed by Election Day voters and those who go to the polls in October or even September. He sees it as a problem when some people have already voted before the general election debates, and before whatever revelations are still to come in the final weeks of the campaign.

Geraghty supplies a few examples of late-breaking news, such as the financial crisis that unfolded in September 2008 and the revelation late in the 2000 cycle that George W. Bush once got a ticket for driving under the influence.

It isn’t clear why these developments should have caused anyone to change his or her vote in 2000 or 2008. And it isn’t clear now why anyone should change his or her vote if Hillary Clinton comes down with walking pneumonia, or if questions are raised about the activities of Donald Trump’s charitable foundation.

The main point here is that most people don’t base their votes on information they get about candidates and their policies. Mostly, we are voting for a candidate’s party. Or, more broadly, most of us vote in sync with those groups we identify with politically. The candidate’s campaign – and the hundreds of millions of dollars it spends reaching out to voters – is for the most part dedicated to pushing us in the direction we were headed anyway, based on our party and group identification.

Nothing is wrong with that. If my ideology or profession or ethnicity or income bracket is important to me when it comes to politics, and if I can correctly match which candidate these groups are voting for, then I’m a sufficiently informed voter.

This doesn’t mean that all people in any group “should” vote for the same candidate. We all belong to dozens of groups, and we can and do choose which of these groups matter the most to us politically and which do not.

Nor does it mean that politicians can stop talking about policy, or that the media should stop pressing them on it. Candidate promises are an important part of representation, even if (most) voters are only barely aware of what the candidates are saying on (most) issues.

We should, however, stop shaming each other and ourselves for not being well-informed voters. Most of us know enough most of the time to vote “correctly.” We vote the way we would if we had spent a lot more time and effort on it.

Jonathan Bernstein is a columnist for Bloomberg View.

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