Izzi Zawartka considers what makes a voting system fair – and how we need to be educated in order to participate in politics.
The design of a state’s voting system is one of the most crucial factors in its national development. Beyond referendums and other forms of direct democracy, where decision-making is placed directly into the hands of citizens, the policy agenda of the day is largely determined by the representatives we elect. Voting, though it may not seem so on the individual level, has widespread short-term and decisive long-lasting effects on a country’s actions. Consequently, political scientists have long debated to what extent such a serious and influential task should be entrusted to the masses.
In his controversial 2016 release, Against Democracy, Jason Brennan argues that, contrary to the belief that voting is an inherent right to be protected and promoted by the government, citizens should not be allowed to participate in decision making unless they can demonstrate sufficient knowledge about their own country and broader international affairs. Coining the phrase ‘competence principle,’ Brennan argues that those who are ignorant or indifferent to politics should not necessarily be entitled to weigh in on political matters. He proposes that, contrary to normal voting procedure, citizens should be asked a series of questions upon casting a ballot. In this scenario, data would be gathered regarding what the voting public wants, however, only those who demonstrate proficiency on the short test would have their votes count towards the final decision.
The replacement of democracy with Brennan’s proposed “epistocracy” would fundamentally challenge how we organise our societies. When framed as a way to protect against individuals’ lack of relevant knowledge and political disinterest, the concept seems appealing. Yet, even for those born with voting power who choose not to go to the polls and exercise their inherent right, there is something deeply troubling about denying citizens a voice in the political process.
Assigning voting privileges – as they would cease to become rights – on the basis of merit would lead to decision-making skewed in favour of a niche elite. By allowing educated citizens, most often those holding higher paying professional positions, to capture a majority of the vote, an epistocracy risks erasing important concerns from those who need more help from the government. Moreover, prioritisation of the educated could create a new kind of social stratification along educational lines.
This valuation of the educated is therefore problematic. Despite stories of successful individuals who managed to pull themselves up by the bootstraps, how far an individual can climb along the ladder of achievement often depends on where they were born into it. Children in families with no prior experience of college education are at a severe disadvantage to those whose highly qualified parents are pressuring them to receive good grades from a young age. Providing preferential treatment to the educated will only serve to further this gap, as politics conducted by the educated further benefits their class.
Beyond the philosophical quandaries lie logistical difficulties. A government with the power to select voters based on their knowledge can systematically manipulate the composition of the electorate to fit their specific agendas. Depending on the questions asked, this kind of system can be used to systematically silence specific groups. And this isn’t new: voter tests were, after all, the chosen method of exclusion of America’s black population before the Jim Crow Laws were abolished during the civil rights movement.
Thus, rather than a full transformation into epistocratic voting, it may be more beneficial simply to inject elements of this system into the current structure. If the government were, for example, to make an effort to inform its electorate of the relevant political issues at hand and following up by asking them questions about the information that they received, it might be fairer to write someone off for being uninformed or unconcerned about politics, given they have been offered the opportunity and turned it down. Of course, this process of properly educating the electorate is much easier said than done; it too is subject to political manipulation. Yet, finding ways to make credible information more widely available may just be the key to crafting the most effective policy.
Finding the right balance between strictly conditional and non-conditional voting rights will continue to be an important problem for countries to resolve. If we assign voting rights on the basis of education, is the problem really the voting system? Or could it simply mean we all need to try harder to spread better political education?