The idea that voters are generally uninformed is a pervasive and popular opinion. This leads many people, both political junkies and less politically knowledgeable people, to come to the conclusion that voters are incapable of making good decisions in elections. However, I don’t believe this is the case. Voters are not uninformed and are able to vote correctly a majority of the time.
I should clarify, by “to vote correctly” I do not mean to vote according to one single “correct” ideology. Rather I mean that the voter votes for the candidate who most embodies their own personally held beliefs.
Gaining knowledge and understanding many different issues takes an incredible amount of time and energy. A lot of issues, like taxes, welfare and foreign policy, are incredibly complex. They’re “hard” issues, and having an informed opinion on hard issues require a lot of information and deep understanding.
This is compared to “easy” issues, like marriage equality, abortion and gun control, which require very little data or information to have a solid informed opinion.
People have only a limited amount of time and energy to put into politics. Perfect information on any topic is an unreasonable goal. Most people have families, jobs, school and hobbies that occupy most of their attention. In light of this, voters do something we all do when we make decisions: we satisfice.
Satisficing is when we come up with a decision that is close enough to perfect as we are able to get. We do this using a number of shortcuts. There are two that people use in politics that often results in them voting correctly.
The first is party identification. Over the past decade or two the two political parties have become increasingly polarized. Candidates in either party are positioning themselves toward the extremes of their party in order to appeal to their base. This means that when a person says they’re a Democrat or Republican people form an instant assumption of their political positions, and those assumptions would, for the most part, be correct.
For the most part Republicans will be anti-government regulation of the market, pro-life and anti-gun control, for example. For the most part Democrats will be pro-gun control, pro-choice, and pro-government intervention in the free market. There are some exceptions, like the “Blue Dog” conservative Democrats, but those exceptions are incredibly rare.
The second shortcut people will use to help them vote correctly is crowdsourcing their votes. Every day people rely on their trusted friends or family to help them make the best decisions possible and the same is true for voting. People look to friends or family who are more politically tuned in for information on candidates and what positions each one holds. People will use that friend or family’s endorsement to help guide them as they make their own vote.
For example, if you have a friend you know you agree with on most issues you would be more likely to vote for a candidate he or she endorsed, and that vote would be correct for you for the most part.
By using these shortcuts, voters are able to reach decisions that actually reflect their own personally held convictions. This, ultimately, is the goal of democracy. Voters are not perfect all of the time, but overall we have nothing to fear. Good decisions will be made even without perfect information.