President Obama is still making waves over his speech last week in Cleveland, where among other ways to dismantle the power of large donors over elections he noted:
In Australia, and some other countries, there’s mandatory voting. It would be transformative if everybody voted. That would counteract money more than anything. If everybody voted, then it would completely change the political map in this country, because the people who tend not to vote are young; they’re lower income; they’re skewed more heavily towards immigrant groups and minority groups; and they’re often the folks who are — they’re scratching and climbing to get into the middle class. And they’re working hard, and there’s a reason why some folks try to keep them away from the polls. We should want to get them into the polls. So that may end up being a better strategy in the short term.
Demos immediately noted the accuracy to his statement with a statistical look at how both the typical electorate is wealthier than the general population and non-voters of all income levels are less invested in protecting that class’s interests. Quite a few critical responses were less rigorous, like Matt Lewis’ in the The Telegraph. Like most counterpoints it ultimately had one fear at the core of it. As Lewis put it, “While I don’t want to live in a nation where only land-holding white males get to vote, I also don’t want to live in a nation where my vote is effectively canceled out by someone who has neither the inclination nor the information to cast an informed ballot.” That’s a fairly emotional reaction born out of an assumption, that the comparatively wealthy, White, and conservative electorate (within which Lewis is fairly normal) is simply the best one to make political choices.
The American Spectator at least attempted to craft a logical defense of that assumption in their response. Their claim rested on two citations – a Pew Research Poll and a paper affiliated with the American Political Science Association. Both establish political “ignorance” in a fairly unimpressive way. Why should knowledge about the political party membership of historical (or even present) figures matter much in a country with individual candidate races? Why is an ability to define the three branches of federal government key to a political understanding of who is the best candidate? The latter even points out among less powerful groups women outperform men when it comes to “local politics and ―’gender relevant’ issues that are directly pertinent to women’s lives, such health care, abortion policy, or women’s representation in local, state, and national government.” It seems like these tests may be biased towards information that’s less relevant for the many marginalized groups both in their daily lives and in voting booths.
Education systems both in the US and around the world have long confronted this issue, from here.
But even if we assume this presumption of ignorance among the less powerful is true (which it very well may be), there’s a very real concern to be had over journalists treating it as an inevitable fact. As members of the Fourth Estate, it’s arguable that they have a duty to inform the entire public, in a way accessible to and relevant for differing subgroups. How much of the “ignorance” gap is a reflection of an ineffective media, owned by influential interests, guided by dominant ideologies, and populated by members of generally empowered groups? If members of that group are unhappy with their impact on the electorate (particularly a highly participatory one), then they could always… do their jobs.