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Archive for Sunday, August 22, 2004

Voters could be better-informed

August 22, 2004

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The calls come to Project Vote Smart in a steady stream, from New York and New Mexico, from California and Connecticut, from the confused in every corner of the land.

Who is my congressman, they ask. How can I reach him? How do I register to vote? Who is running for office? Where do they stand on the issues?

Some know exactly what to ask. But others, says 21-year-old volunteer Kelly Flanagan, "have a very vague idea of what they want" -- they are stumbling through the labyrinth of American democracy without a map.

There are many of those people, and come November, they will help choose the next leader of the most powerful country on the planet.

They are ignorant though they are awash with information -- on television and radio, in print and on the Internet. They are ill-informed because they do not have the time or wherewithal or inclination to learn, or misinformed because they are at the mercy of spinmeisters.

"We're not well-informed, and a lot of that is our fault," says Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York. "If the public chose to inform itself, there's no question that it could."

It would be an overstatement to paint America as a confederacy of dunces; there are those who say we may not be a nation of civic superstars, but we know enough to get by.

Survey results discouraging

Through the years, pollsters have tried to assess how much Americans know. Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, in their book "What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters," looked at 3,700 survey questions posed between 1940 and 1994.

The results do not inspire confidence:

l In 1945, only 45 percent knew that the government regulated radio.

l In 1952, only 27 percent could name two branches of government.

l In 1970, only 24 percent could identify the secretary of state.

l In 1988, only 47 percent could locate England on a map.

All together, Americans knew the answers about 40 percent of the time.

The numbers have remained fairly steady over the years. Delli Carpini points out that they mask differences among groups -- women, minorities and young people score low.

Most of the ignorant aren't stupid, he says. They just lack motivation to learn, or access to information, or the education necessary to negotiate the system.

"Over time, if you look at a broad level of knowledge, most people are kind of middling informed," says Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "They're certainly not the ignoramuses that they're often painted as."

Voting instincts

Regardless, they know enough -- at least according to Samuel Popkin, a professor at the University of California at San Diego. Popkin suggests that Americans vote by filtering small bits of information and using their instincts.

"That's what they do, and it's not so bad," he says. "That's how they hire people, choose baby sitters ... Somehow in your gut, you figure these things out."

Popkin calls it "gut rationality." It works best when the choices are clear, and not complicated, he says. Most elections are like that: "People don't learn more than they need to to make a simple choice. You're choosing between two brands."

And in a crisis -- in wartime or economic hard times -- they pay more attention, and are better informed, he says.

Popkin acknowledges that gut rationality doesn't always work. When people think they know something, and they don't, they often make mistakes.

Preconceived notions also can derail a citizen's judgment. Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, says the Internet can keep minds closed instead of opening them; people who previously had to wade through newspapers that offered opposing points of view now turn to Web sites or television channels that conform with their own beliefs.

Not that they need any help in keeping their minds closed.

Ask people to make a series of estimates about welfare -- as political scientists in Illinois did in 1997 -- and most will make mistakes consistently. If you have a bias against welfare, you'll overestimate the annual benefits for a family, the proportion of the federal budget spent on welfare, the percent of welfare mothers without a high school education.

"People usually know what they're doing in mating, mothering and making friends," say political scientists James Kuklinski and Paul Quirk of the University of Illinois.

But they're not hard-wired to make the kinds of decisions they need to vote, the professors say. And American democracy -- which once depended on the elites to help voters make decisions, and then on political parties -- now relies on the individual's informed decision making.

Citizenship has only gotten more difficult as the world has gotten more complicated. "The intellectual task of casting an informed ballot has changed," says Michael Schudson, author of "The Good Citizen." "It has become much tougher than it used to be, 100 or even 50 years ago."

Information sometimes elusive

Lori Z is a young woman who posted a message on the Web site halfbakery.com, describing her frustrations as she tried to exercise her franchise.

"I'm not a very well-informed voter, but it's not for lack of trying," she writes.

"For about two years prior to the first election in which I was old enough to vote, I read two local newspapers ... every day, cutting out virtually all articles about elected officeholders (at all levels of government), or past or known future candidates for elected office. I wasn't even able to fill out half my ballot."

She just didn't know enough about the candidates for Wayne County drain commissioner and other positions that never rise to the level of news.

"Citizens know fairly well what they know and what they don't know," Schudson says. "That's why there's a drop off in voting, from the top to the bottom of the ticket. They know they don't know who the judges are. They leave it blank."

They often have reason to feel inadequate when voting for higher offices, as well.

Fourteen years ago, Richard Kimball -- a failed candidate for U.S. Senate from Arizona -- established Project Vote Smart. The goal was to dispense nonpartisan voter information.

Today, 30 staffers and 40 interns work at the project's headquarters at the Great Divide Ranch in Montana. But gigabytes of voting records, campaign speeches and finance records are no match for the millions of dollars spent by candidates to burnish their image, attack their opponents and spin their stands on the issues.

"It's very hard for citizens to realize that they're being manipulated," says Adelaide Kim, chairman of Project Vote Smart's board.

Every election, Project Vote Smart asks the candidates for president, Congress, governor and state legislature to answer questions on issues such as abortion, energy policy, gun ownership and health care. Since 1996, the number of congressional candidates who ultimately answered the questions has fallen from 72 percent to 50 percent.

Is there any way to better inform America's voters? James S. Fishkin has an idea.

Deliberation Day?

A professor at Stanford University, Fishkin would declare a national holiday before every election, gather Americans in small groups to discuss the issues, and pay every one $150 for his or her time.

He calls it Deliberation Day. It is, he says, "a safe place for serious conversation."

Deliberation Day (also the title of a book by Fishkin and Bruce Ackerman, published this year) may sound like a pipe dream. But since 1997 Fishkin has run dozens of small-scale experiments, in America and overseas, and PBS will sponsor a national pilot program on Oct. 16.

Too often, Fishkin says, people don't feel their voice matters, so they don't become engaged. "It's like they're sleepwalking," he says.

But in a smaller group, they are forced to listen to different viewpoints. They learn things they never knew. And every voice matters.

"The public is very smart," says Fishkin, "if you just give them a chance."

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