In early September, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the great basketball player who has since become a political activist, author, columnist for Time Magazine, did an interview with NPR where he said that uninformed voters should not be encouraged to vote. He said such voters actually did a disservice to democracy if they made uninformed decisions about policy. His comments have been reported and condemned as a Democratic explanation for why the Republican Party nominated Donald Trump, but the issue goes much deeper than the presidential race this year.
Citizens also select local and state candidates and can vote here in California or a wide range of issues that affect them personally, like the death penalty and marijuana legalization. Abdul-Jabbar’s comments, included in his latest book, elicited on-air discussion on AirTalk (KPCC 89.3) by several political scientists, including Morehouse College professor Marc Lamont Hill, University of New Mexico political science professor Lonna Atkeson, and Jason Brennan from Georgetown University and author of The Ethics of Voting. Should people be discouraged from voting if they don’t know enough about issues? Who decides what is enough?
Our Founding Fathers wanted to keep voting as a privilege for the elite land-owning white men who had an economic or philosophical stake in policy, people who had time to study and consider the ramifications of decisions. The Federalists viewed society as hierarchical and were afraid of the “instability, injustice, and confusion” (Federalist Papers, No. 10) that would inevitably be caused if commoners made policy decisions that reflected their own self-interest rather than supporting the political and economic goals of the elite. The Constitution set in place the electoral college to mitigate the effects of a nationwide popular vote on the presidency. The government was structured to minimize factions and led to the development of the two-party system, each with policies that broadly appeal to different groups of interests. They believed that common ground between competing interests would be found in the middle.
Voting rights were expanded in order to acquire and maintain power for one party or the other, and were taken away when it was in the interest of the party in control. Literacy tests were considered in several industrial states before the Civil War to control the number of immigrants who could vote, and were adopted in Massachusetts and Connecticut in the 1850s. In the post-Civil War Jim Crow South, literacy tests were justified to diminish the Black vote. Literacy tests were not explicitly prohibited nationally until the 1965 Voting Rights Act was enacted.
The issue of who is qualified to vote is one of the oldest discussions in American politics. While Abdul-Jabbar was not talking about disenfranchising citizens using literacy tests, his comments raise the unfortunate specter of the days when the government legally allowed restrictions. Professor Hill pointed out in a follow-up interview on NPR that “just as a practical matter, when we don’t encourage voters to come out to the polls, the people who stay home quickest are black and brown folk”. Professor Atkeson also asked, “if you’re not encouraging, are you discouraging?”She also noted that working people are busy and don’t have time or the interest in following every issue. Since information is something people look for when they need it, she said that when people perceive an issue as important to their future, studies show that they “engage in accuracy-based reasoning, not bias-based.” She believes that what’s important is not that people are well-informed, but that information is readily available when they need it.
Alternatively, Professor Brennan is more in agreement with Abdul-Jabbar and suggests that systemic misinformation is a bigger problem with people that are only tangentially interested in political issues. He says people vote symbolically and emotionally, not based on actual knowledge of policies. Since the main goal of political parties is to win, misinformation directed at uninformed voters can cause enormous damage.
Ultimately discouraging voting by those who are not informed will limit voters to those that have the time and interest to study the ramifications of issues , and whose choices will reflect their own values and interests. Even people who work two jobs have personal opinions about social issues such as the minimum wage and reproductive rights. It’s important to encourage people to vote on what matters to them and not be feel the need to vote on everything on the ballot. The vast number of candidates, policies, and platforms can be quite intimidating, but voting on some issues could lead to an increased interest in other issues. While party-line voting can help by providing broad platforms of interests that people can generally agree with even if they don’t have all the information, another take-away from Abdul-Jabbar’s message is that people should become better informed on issues that matter to them, and not vote blindly.
Never before in history has everyone had so much access to so much information. Everyone must be encouraged to find issues they care about, to take advantage of evolving technology and become better informed, and to vote. People don’t have an incentive to vote when they don’t think their vote matters, but these new theories suggest that every vote is essential in reaching better group decisions that affect the future for us all.