What is an informed voter?

Given the amount of time that that I have spent volunteering for the NDP (New Democrat Party) for the upcoming Canadian election, I feel that I am more informed about the issues in this election than for any other election I will have voted in. This brings up a question that I have previously reflected upon. What is a responsible voter? Crucial to democratic rhetoric is the notion that voting is both a right and a responsibility. That even if you do not know who you intend to vote for, you should, at the very least, show up and spoil your ballet. This is a very minimalist notion of voting responsibility, even if it is one that many people fail to achieve. The question remains, however, how much people should aspire to know or understand in an election.

There is an economics argument that I have read a notable amount on which argues that informed voting is a kind of tragedy of the commons – we would all benefit substantially if all voters spent an hour researching who to vote for (if nothing else, this would lead to higher levels of scrutiny for political parties), but we would all prefer it if others spent that hour researching their vote and we spent the time relaxing or researching where we would like to go on vacation next year. Similarly, party loyalty is arguably an effective means of saving time and energy – after an initial investment deciding on which party to support, the voter can assume that the party will continue to represent their beliefs in the future. In asking the question of how much voters should know, I do not think that this kind of economic logic can be completely disregarded. Our time is precious, and I do not want to take it as a given that pursuing political knowledge is a responsibility of citizens. There is something to the rebuttal that is often uttered that people have fought and died to have the right to vote. This, however, does not quite draw out why it is a responsibility. Perhaps our responsibility is to our fellow citizens, though this is possibly contradictory given that each vote in the voting pool dilutes the votes of your fellow citizens. There is some evidence that group decisions can actually be better than individual decisions in some cases (see more on this here), though the extent to which this is the case is difficult to discern.

So how much should people aspire to know? It is obviously not a formal or lawful responsibility, at least not in Canada (there are 13 countries where voting is compulsory, according to wikipedia, including North Korea, where ‘Dissenting votes are possible but lead to repercussions for voters’). The question is instead how much a ‘good citizen’ should aim to understand in making their vote. Of course, notions of ‘good citizenship’ only have power in a very existential way, quite distinct from what is advantageous as I’ve explored in the previous paragraph. We all ‘should’ be good people, that’s pretty much the definition of good, but the main force behind such a concept is just our desire to be such. This, then, is my question: for someone seeking to be a ‘good citizen’, how much should they set out to know about politics. Even then, though, I do not think there is a uniform answer. When it comes to doing good work, we split responsibility. We can not be masters in all areas. Having a strong grasp of politics, like being a good teacher or an active member of a volunteer fire brigade* requires a significant investment of effort. It seems quite reasonable to say that some members of a community should be knowledgeable about politics, but it also seems reasonable to say that someone who’s interests lay elsewhere may lean on political savvy people they trust when it comes to political decisions.

As is often the case, after exploring what I know of the topic, I must conclude that I have less of an answer than when I started. I’ll probably write on this again next week.

Thank you for reading, let me know what you think,


*There are probably better examples in existence.

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