An Upside of Polarization?

Back in 2008, the political scientists Richard Lau, David Anderson, and David Redlawsk published an article in the American Journal of Political Science revisiting the idea of “correct voting”:

Political science has focused on turnout as the most important act of democratic citizenship, but we argue that citizens do not fulfill their democratic duty by simply showing up at the polls and voting. For democracy towork the way it is supposed to, citizens must also vote for the candidate or party who best represents their interests and concerns. This is hardly a controversial point. Yet by raising it we acknowledge that all voters are not voting correctly—that is, voting in accordance with their own values and interests.

Note that Lau et al. are not making any claim regarding how voters ought to understand their own values and interests. That is, they aren’t suggesting that all low-income voters should favor more redistribution. Rather, they are arguing that if a low-income voters does favor more redistribution, and this conviction takes precedent over other values she might hold, she should, as a normative matter, vote for the party that favors more redistribution. 

Indeed, from an information processing perspective we might wonder whether ordinary cognitively limited citizens can come anywhere close to living up to the standards their system of government presumes. Our answer, however, based on a fairly detailed examination of recent voting in one such democracy, is a very clear and emphatic “Yes they can.” Updating research originally presented by Lau and Redlawsk (1997), we find that an average of a little over three-quarters of the voters in the past nine presidential elections in the United States have, according to at least one defensible criterion, voted correctly—that is, in accordance with what their fully informed preferences should be. But then by our accounts about one-quarter of all voters voted incorrectly, sending a misleading message about the direction of their preferences rather than the message presumably sent by all nonvoters, that they just don’t care enough to bother voting. This then gives democratic theorists a new goal for improving democracy: not only should we try to find more ways to motivate citizens to vote (e.g., Gerber and Green 2000), but we should also try to find ways to helpvoters vote correctly.

So how might we reduce the amount of incorrect voting? Ideologically distinct candidates appear to make a significant contribution:

In particular, two-candidate races involving candidates who are perceived to be reasonably distinct ideologically produce an increase in the probability of a correct vote of about 23%, all else equal, compared to three-candidate races involving ideologically similar candidates. Two-party systems are supposed to typically produce two centrist candidates, while proportional representation (PR) systems should more often produce multiple (that is, more than two) ideologically distinct candidates, so one might think this combination of propitious circumstances would rarely occur. But by “ideologically distinct,” we are not talking about the difference between a Barry Goldwater and a George McGovern. Even the range of distinctiveness between the major party candidates that typically occurs in the United States (a range that produces noticeably more distinct candidates a little less than half of the time) is sufficient to produce these differences—at least in the United States. Whether this magnitude of effects would translate into higher levels of correct voting in other democratic systems is another question for future research. We can only presume, however, that if in the United Sates, a Barry Goldwater actually did face off against a George McGovern, levels of correct voting would increase even more. 

Earlier today, I had a stimulating conversation with David Schleicher, a professor at GMU Law School who works on a wide range of issues, most of which have something to do with improving the quality of democratic decision-making. Thanks to David for introducing me to the correct voting thesis. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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