Sunday, May 31, 2009

Who Should Vote?

Democracy is a great political innovation. Being able to voice your opinion and having a say in who and how a country is run is powerful and leading to far greater social reform and happiness.

However, a significant number of people freely choose not to vote. Further, many people vote along a party or historical line and attach their vote to a specific issue. In many cases, the reason for supporting (or opposing) an issue is not very clear as the voter has not spent much time understanding their view or the other.

Is it time to change the way we allow people to vote?
In Canada, once you reach 18, you are allowed to vote as long as you are a Canadian citizen. That's it. You magically become eligible to vote! Why are there no other requirements to be able to vote?

First, I don't like the 'regional representation' model of Canadian politics. Years ago, this made sense because travel and communication were limited. However, nowadays voters can easily vote on specific issues and don't necessarily need to be 'regionally' recognized. In fact, if political parties were assigned seats based on national support, minority parties would actually receive more seats since their support is usually thinly spread out and unable to gain power in any one region. Further, some voters may not vote for their preferred party recognizing that their vote will be useless if they are in a minority. Also, this would prevent 'defensive' voting (ie. voting Liberal just to make sure Conservatives don't get a lot of votes even though you support Green).

Professional Voters
I think voting on important issues requires an educated voter. The main problem with Democracy is that anyone can vote, even those who know little about the issue they are voting for! I'd like to see a system where people are required to learn about issues and then earn the right to vote on it. This class of people would become 'qualified' or even 'expert' voters.

The idea is to have a test that neutrally presents the sides of an issue. A potential voter must answer questions that show they understand the arguments being presented and then earn the privilege to vote. This does not mean that uninformed people cannot voice opinions, it simply means they don't vote.

Deciding Issues
Take the issue of Evolution in America. Should Americans 'vote' on whether it is taught in public schools? There are arguments for and against teaching evolution. However, due to the low levels of science education in America, does it make sense to have citizens, illiterate in evolution, to decide whether it's taught?

Imagine critics of evolution want to remove it from the curriculum. To gain support for their idea, they would need to educate those who agree with them not just on the anti-evolution arguments, but also the pro-evolution argument because they know the potential voter must pass a questionnaire to see if they really understand the issue. Only those who do will be allowed to vote on it!

My goal with this idea is to get public policy issues passed by those who are most qualified to decide them. This is very similar to the peer review process in science. In fact, it should ensure that future policies are decided by scientific methods and not on rhetorical arguments. Would you vote for that?


Stepan said...

I'm not sure about Canada, but the US South has a sordid history of poll taxes where citizens would be charged a fee to prove they were qualified to vote. Similarly, a literacy test was sometimes required. It was a very effective way of disenfranchising the poor and uneducated. The 24th amendment to the US Constitution made poll taxes illegal and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 did the same for literacy tests.

I share your frustration with an uninformed electorate, but universal suffrage is really the only way to ensure that everyone (who chooses) gets a chance to have their voice heard. You assume that the "voter test" would be unbiased, which would often be an incorrect assumption (the voter tests in the post-civil war South were very much designed to suppress black vote).

But even if the test could be guaranteed to be unbiased, those who could not pass (poor and uneducated) would then be at mercy of those who could (wealthy and educated). Again, the historical precedent for this isn't very pretty.

So, no, I would not vote for such a system. Sure, I'm left with is ranting at the morons at the polls, but it probably is better than your proposed alternative.

HumanistDad said...

I wonder what percentage of poor, uneducated vote? Either way, I don't say they cannot vote, I say that if they want to vote, they need to become educated on the issues.

I understand your concern and I don't claim to know what the result of my ideas would be. I just think that important ideas need to be debated by the people most qualified to decide them. It just seems crazy to allow the "uneducated" to vote on public policy. I certainly support efforts to 'educate' those who want to vote.

I think about the Prop 8 issue in California and it just doesn't seem right that the supporters only need to convince people to cast a ballot, not actually think about what they are voting for.

kwandongbrian said...

"Democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others." Churchill.

Stepan said...

Well, it's pretty easy for you or me to become educated on issues (it's not like my work computer is actually for doing work, is it? :-) I don't think I'd have the energy to educate myself if I was working a couple of jobs and didn't have easy internet access (at work or home).

Can you list some specific questions you would envision a voter to answer correctly to prove eligibility to vote on Prop 8? FWIW, I was against it (though I don't live in California, I do have relatives there), but my position should be irrelevant to passing the test.

HumanistDad said...

If Prop 8 does not pass, which of the following is likely to occur? (check all that apply)

1. Marriage between people and animals will be allowed.

2. People will be able to have multiple wives or husbands.

3. Family members of a gay person may lose the right to make medical decisions.

4. Churches will not be able to refuse to perform a gay marriage ceremony.

The correct answer is 3 (the gay spouse will get to make medical decisions over family).

The point of any questionaire is not to educate but see if the people understand the issues. Those who are swayed by rhetoric or false claims cannot vote on the issue.

As for a Pro-Prop 8 question:

Which of the following is likely to occur if gays are allowed to marry? (check all that apply)

1. Social security costs will increase.

2. Children will be more likely to become gay as adults.

3. Homosexual lifestyles will be taught in schools.

4. Gay couples will confuse children about who is mom and who is dad.

Answer is 1 because upon death the surviving gay spouse is entitled to gov't survivor benefits just like straight people.

The tests are not meant to be essay-answers, just to determine if the voter knows the relevant issues.

Stepan said...

Again, you run into the issue about who decides what "false claims" are.

From a Pro-Prop 8's person's point of view (someone who doesn't acknowledge the validity of gay marriage) your "correct" answers aren't necessarily the only ones.

The first four are pretty straight forward. 1, 2 and 4 are slippery slope fallacies. But one could argue that 4 is also false, since a gay couple "doesn't need marriage" if they assign each other the power of attorney.

More than one of your Pro-Prop 8 questions could be reasonably argued as true.

"1. Social security..."

Agree - (also an excellent reason against letting straight people marry :-)

"2. Children will be more likely..."

In a more accepting environment, more children will feel free to acknowledge their sexual orientation. So this could be arguably considered true.

"3. Homosexual lifestyle..."

I would suspect that it would be less taboo to talk (teach) about homosexuality. So this could be arguably considered true.

"4. Gay couples will confuse..."

I'm not sure I understand this one, but yes, mainstreaming of gay marriages will be confusing from a traditional point of view. So this could be arguably considered true as well.

HumanistDad said...

Fair criticism! I had a hard time forming responses to support Prop 8 and I realize my answers were not as clear as they should be, which is why I likely would not be selected to write the questions!

The intent is to separate facts (economic costs) from false claims (there is a 'gay' agenda) and see if the potential voter knows the difference.