Who Should be Allowed to Vote?

Let us suppose that a jury has just reached a verdict on any case you can imagine (however trivial). Let us suppose that we discover one of the following three facts:

  1. The Ignorant Jury. The jury paid no attention to the trial; when asked how each of them found the defendant, they arbitrarily decided on guilty.
  2. The Irrational Jury. The jury paid some attention to the trial, however decided their judgement on reasons not related to the trail, such as wishful thinking or bizarre conspiracy theories.
  3. The Morally Unreasonable Jury. The jury found the defendant guilty because of pre-existing prejudices, i.e. she is Romanian.

In each of these cases the jury would lack authority and legitimacy (there would most likely be a retrial). A jury’s decision can significantly affect people’s lives—not simply the defendants—by depriving them of property, liberty and even life. Here’s a principle that the three juries could be said to violate:

The Competence Principle: It is unjust to deprive citizens of life, liberty and property, or to alter their life prospects significantly, by force and threats of force as a result of decisions made by an incompetent or morally unreasonable deliberative body, or as a result of decisions made in an incompetent and morally unreasonable way (Brennan 2011, 704).

It would be unjust for a government to knowingly enforce these decisions insofar as it violates the Competence Principle. It would not be good enough, in each of these cases, if the judge said: ‘well, most of the jurors made the decision in a competent way’. It would also not be good enough if she said, ‘99 percent of juries, as a whole, make their decisions in a competent way’. In either of these cases the defendant could argue: ‘but this particular juror/jury didn’t, and so they shouldn’t affect the outcome.’ Any particular failing of the competence principle should disqualify the decision made and/or the person making that decision. In this regard the principle does not say anything about who should have authority; rather, it says something about those who should not have authority (we can call it an anti-authority tenet).

Jason Brennan, whose excellent work I have borrowed from, suggests that the competence principle should not just apply to juries; it should also apply to voting rights. The government, like a jury, greatly affects people’s lives. He imagines examples of a government pursuing bad monetary policies, pushing a recession into a depression and of decisions leading to costly, destructive and inhumane wars.

Having the right to vote grants each citizen some degree of political power (however small). And yet, this power is not just held over oneself, but held over others too. Just like the example of the jury, voters can make decisions on the wrong grounds. Consider the following three voters:

  1. The Ignorant Voter. The voter paid no attention to the election; when asked to vote, they arbitrarily decided on a particular candidate/party.
  2. The Irrational Voter. The voter paid some attention to the election, however decided whom to vote for on reasons not related to the election, such as wishful thinking or various disputed social scientific hypotheses.
  3. The Morally Unreasonable Voter. The voter chose on the grounds of pre-existing prejudices, i.e. that his preferred candidate was white.

I agree with Brennan: these three voters should not be able to choose the government which greatly affects my life insofar as they do not do so competently. Brennan writes: ‘People who exercise power over me, including other voters, should have to do so in a competent and morally reasonable way. Otherwise, as a matter of justice, they ought to be excluded from holding political power, including the power to vote’ (Brennan 2011, 704). He advocates an epistocracy with restricted suffrage; that is, rule by the knowledgeable and competent. To some extent, all modern democracies are epistocracies—though, very weakly so—due to the fact that children are excluded from voting on the grounds that they are incompetent.

So far it’s been suggested that universal suffrage is unjust because it violates the competence principle. However, is restricted suffrage itself unjust? The plausibility of a more epistocratic voting system is going to, in part, turn on how we judge who is incompetent. That seems like a good place to start then. (Though, before that, let me just say I think it better that as many people should vote as possible—though, the worry of incompetency remains.)

The most plausible way to satisfy the competency principle—practically that is, to wit, not overly costly or unrealistic—is a voter exam, akin to a driving test. Brennan’s tentative version of the exam would test for general social science and basic knowledge about the election’s candidates. Let me—very roughly—sketch what I think the most plausible version of the voter exam. Each prospective voter has to show that they are engaged with the debate and able to pick out certain key promises made by the candidates (where at least a version of each party’s manifesto is set out in a universal format, and kept to an appropriate size; particular issues from candidates should also be included in a universal format for each constituency). It would essentially be a comprehension test. The harder issue, I think, will be in regards to the social scientific side of things. For example, how to test whether a voter can accurately determine the plausibility of claims will be extremely hard (especially relating to social science and economics). That said, there does seem to be a line that can be drawn—for example, immigration has time and time again been shown to be economically beneficial to the UK (see below for some related articles); and yet, many voters still think otherwise. In that vein, a bumper fact sheet could be useful. This issue also speaks to problems relating to the media and representation, which is complicated on its own.

So what’s going to be objectionable about such an exam? Where to start! Here’s another principle that may be required in order to justly distribute power besides the competency principle (the requirement comes from David Estlund’s Democratic Authority):

Qualified Acceptability Requirement. Any grounds for distributing power must be acceptable from all qualified points of view.

Will any version of the voter exam also satisfy the qualified acceptability requirement? First, one could reasonably object that certain people’s failing to meet the competency principle may be the result of underlying socio-economic injustices; this could result, for example, from poor education or through not having as much free time to become engaged with the issues. This objection does not necessarily imply that those enfranchised will vote in their societal group’s favour (thus, against those disenfranchised); it simply may be unjust that a certain group of citizens cannot vote because of socio-economic injustices. Against this objection it could be suggested that we have a public holiday before each general election, setting aside time for voter education; there could also be night or weekend classes run for those who would like to become more informed. Another objection, not wholly unrelated, is what Estlund calls the Demographic Objection: those enfranchised may disproportionately have epistemically damaging features—certain biases, for example—which countervail the epistemic benefits of the restricted suffrage. A third worry may be that the exam itself could be used as a tool to keep the government in power; even a slight risk of this could be enough to warrant reasonable objection.

Due to the constraints of this post, I cannot engage with these objections and possible counter-objections; my purpose has rather been to challenge what many would take to be an unchallengeable belief (thanks to an incredible paper by Jason Brennan). In closing, I would suggest that there may be measures we could take before restricted suffrage to meet the competency principle—or at the least, countervail the injustice Brennan speaks of. For instance, questions could be asked of the press and their bearing upon our incompetence or apathy.

You can follow me @joe_bowen_1

Jason Brennan (2011). ‘The Rights to a Competent Electorate’, The Philosophical Quarterly, 61/25, pp. 700-24.

David Estlund (2009). Democratic Authority (Princeton University Press).

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/british-public-wrong-about-nearly-everything-survey-shows-8697821.html

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2014/nov/05/eu-migrants-uk-gains-20bn-ucl-study

http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/mar/22/immigrants-role-in-recovery-ukip-beckons-uninformed

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/immigration/11210078/Shouting-about-the-economic-benefits-of-migration-isnt-the-way-to-persuade-people.html

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5 Responses to Who Should be Allowed to Vote?

  • Anders Sandberg says:

    Juror competence has some surprisingly lax features. In the US, Tanner v. United States found that alcohol and drug use in a “party jury” was not enough to justify a mistrial. “drugs or alcohol voluntarily ingested by a juror seems no more an ‘outside influence’ than a virus, poorly prepared food, or lack of sleep.” The real role of the jury might be more representative than epistemic – there are good reasons due to group cognitive biases to change jury deliberation into ballots, but practically nobody seems to care to push it forward.

    Could voting be similar? What matters is not that voters perform a good epistemic job, but that they fulfill a civic duty, creating a government that is roughly in line with their wishes and represents them? The fact that some votes will be miscounted does not invalidate the process as long as they are few. The fact that some people will have noise opinions may just be part of the process. Yes, we could have a government elected for better reasons if voting was restricted by competency, but that might actually not be the point from this non-epistemic perspective.

    I guess the key issue is whether the lack of competency affects the system enough that the outcomes are bad, an empirical question. If the effect is bad enough then it is a reason to change things. But sometimes suboptimal solutons are better than optimal solutions with significant transition costs.

  • Andrews says:

    What matters is not that voters perform a good epistemic job, but that they fulfill a civic duty, creating a government that is roughly in line with their wishes and represents them? The fact that some votes will be miscounted does not invalidate the process as long as they are few. The fact that some people will have noise opinions may just be part of the process. Yes, we could have a government elected for better reasons if voting was restricted by competency, but that might actually not be the point from this non-epistemic perspective.

    I completely agree which the spirit of this passage. What makes epistemic competence mandatory in the point of trails is knowledge or, a bit more weakly, certainty with respect to the defendant’s alleged guilt. The mandatory force of a competence principle thus finds its source in the fact that any trial failing to get to truth or certainty in an epistemically appropriate way would lack legitimacy and thus be unfair.

    The same cannot be said of electing representatives (as in indirect democracies) or of voting on legislative projects (as in direct democracies such as Switzerland). Here the point is rather for the voter to express herself with respect to the question of who would be a good representative for a certain task or role (election) and to the question of what the State should do and how (vote proper). It is about expressing one’s normative and instrumental beliefs (normative: which role should be pursued; normative plus instrumental: is this policy/representative a good policy/representative with respect to that goal?) Sure, epistemic competence could help (i.e. would be desirable), but there is nothing in this situation fueling the mandatory force of an epistemic competence principle (i.e. imperfect competence would not per se make the vote illegitimate or unfair).

  • Dave Frame says:

    Agree with Anders and Andrews. The ability of individuals to influence elections is zero (hence the rational ignorance literature). The ability of individuals to alter the outcomes of trials is magnified by the institutional form – in criminal trials there needs to be a high level of agreement (unanimity, or an 11-1 majority). (Plus, the larger the number of voters, the more noise from incompetents should wash out.) Finally, there are significant differences between trials and elections in terms of what the relevant facts are, and how those facts should hang together to support a policy, which policies matter the most and so on.

    And then there’s the hopelessly value-laden nature of any relevant test you could make up…

    I think the point of representative democracy is to give people a say*, not to give them a voice – democracies allow people to express their voices in different fora (esp. the media, but also other institutions). The vote itself is a blunt instrument, full of aggregated judgements – as Andrews puts it, it’s “about expressing one’s normative and instrumental beliefs.” Even if this expression is restricted to something of a grunt of assent or dissent.

    *As in a yay or a nay.

  • Joseph Bowen says:

    Thank you all for the comments – really interesting. Thought I’d post one reply as there’s some convergence in the suggestions so apologies if I don’t respond to everything.

    The more I’ve been thinking about this (and especially after reading all the comments) I think there’s a few different claims here. The main point is whether the arguments for or against universal suffrage are proceduralist or substantive; that is, whether we value the procedure of voting because, for example, it allows people to fulfil their civil duty, or whether we value universal suffrage because it achieves the best outcome possible. The most plausible theory generally I think is going to be one which incorporates both elements. I think I was actually arguing against universal suffrage on procedurals grounds, that is, even if on the whole we tend to get it right, there’s still something unjust about those voting incompetently—so it may be that, even if the outcomes are a little worse, it could be that it’s still the preferable option. Let me separate two further claims: first, there’s the claim that those who are uninformed shouldn’t vote; second, there’s the claim that those who will vote poorly (even after attempting to become informed) shouldn’t vote. Brennan argues for both; all things considered, I think we can only convincingly get the first claim through.

    Lets accept that there’s a civic duty to vote where the purpose of this duty is to create a government that is roughly in line with people’s wishes (or something similar). But here’s an absurd example: suppose that a particular person has made their decision on the grounds that they prefer the colour blue (and so the blue party is the one they’ve voted for); surely there’s no virtue in this person fulfilling their civic duty? (I think Brennan has actually argued that those uninformed have a civic duty not to vote, though I’ve not read that paper.) And so, as soon as we accept that there’s some conditions a voter has to meet in order to fulfil that duty, then it’s a question of where to draw the line. That will be hard, but I think age might not be the best line at which to draw it.

  • Andrews says:

    suppose that a particular person has made their decision on the grounds that they prefer the colour blue (and so the blue party is the one they’ve voted for); surely there’s no virtue in this person fulfilling their civic duty?

    Indeed. But this does not follow:

    there’s some conditions a voter has to meet in order to fulfil that duty

    The fact that 18 years is the minimum age for voting has nothing to do with people’s fulfilling their civil duty *virtuously*. The point of a condition on voters is not to make sure that, for any vote they might participate to, their vote would be virtuous. The point of a condition on voters is to make sure that they are morally responsible for voting, i.e. are morally accountable for their choice to society. Handicaps, children, prisoners, cannot be held accountable hence cannot vote.

    What is still missing is a normative source with enough force to support the claim that competence (and not merely moral accountability) should be mandatory.

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