Here they come -- the earnest exhortations to get out and vote. You'll be hearing it from television newscasters, MTV, newspaper ads, radio talk show hosts, weathermen, schoolteachers ... you get the idea. Everyone has a duty to vote, they will say.
No they don't. If a person is utterly ignorant about matters of public policy, then he or she has a solemn obligation to refrain from voting. The percentage of people who fall into the utterly ignorant category is estimated to be about 25 percent of eligible voters.
Now before turning to the matter of ignorance, let me acknowledge that I am in sympathy with the sentiment that seems to motivate some get-out-the-vote efforts. Curtis Gans, for example, of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, worries about absentee, Internet and voting by mail not just because these methods increase the possibility of fraud, but because they diminish one of only two remaining communal civic activities on the calendar (the other being celebrating the Fourth of July). I agree that voting is a civil sacrament. I agree that people should take it seriously, even reverently, but ...
There is also a great deal of pious hooey out there about how "smart" the voters are. Well, some are. But some are some are not. Ilya Somin, a professor at the George Mason School of Law, published a study in the Cato Institute's magazine about voter ignorance that offers a peek into the empty spaces between many voters' ears.
Seventy percent of voters apparently were completely unaware of the fact that the federal government adopted a huge prescription drug benefit as part of Medicare during the term of President Bush. Fully 65 percent did not know that the government had passed a ban on partial birth abortions. Some 58 percent acknowledged that they knew little or nothing about the Patriot Act (a figure Somin argues persuasively is probably low-ball). Sixty-one percent thought, incorrectly, that there had been a net job loss in 2004. Only 32 percent were aware that Social Security is one of the two largest expenditure areas in the federal government. Only 25 percent could correctly state that the Bush administration does not believe Saddam Hussein was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks. Only 22 percent knew that the current unemployment rate is lower than the average for the past 30 years.
Political observers make much of swings in voter sentiment -- like the elevation of Republicans to majority status in the House of Representatives in 1994. Yet Somin reports that in the election of 2002, only 32 percent of voters knew that the Republican Party controlled the House. Hmmm.