Facebookposium: More voters? Or more sophisticated voters? (And much, much more)

[Note: The following is a summary of an impromptu Facebook symposium debating, among other things, the relative merits of mandatory voting and the need for “better citizens” in Canadian democracy. My friend and fellow UBC graduate student Edana Beauvais pulled it together on the basis of contributions from various students in the department. It’s all pretty self-explanatory, and at times quite heated! It’s also pretty long, so consider yourself warned.

The debate, I’m pleased to say, continues to percolate. For those who followed the original discussion on Facebook, I am pleased to announce that there is NEW, PREVIOUSLY UNRELEASED MATERIAL in the form of closing statements from a couple of the participants near the bottom below. Other contributors have promised to contribute additional contributions in the near future; I will post them, or links to them here. I intend to weigh in with some final thoughts of my own at some point. Others who would like to contribute in whatever form are welcome to do so. Happy reading!—SP]

In an op-ed piece for the National Post that ran on Friday May 30, UBC political science PhD candidate Stewart Prest noted that political change is in the air (‘Canada needs to Incentivize Voting’ May 30). From the proposed Reform Act, the maligned Fair Elections Act, and innovations from civil society groups, the question of what Canadian democracy should look like has been taken up by a number of journalists and commentators.

In particular, he developed the idea of mandatory voting and its variants, after Post columnist Andrew Coyne, had made a case for it earlier in the month. Mr. Coyne had argued that casting a ballot in elections is a civic duty, much like paying taxes or serving on a jury (‘Compulsory Voting Worth a Try’ May 15). Responding to that piece, fellow UBC PhD candidate Dave Moscrop offered a retort to this argument in his own Post op-ed, claiming that more voting is not the solution to democracy’s woes. In fact, Mr. Moscrop argued, democracy would be better served if certain citizens—prone to making uninformed or ‘incorrect’ vote choices—stayed home on Election Day (‘Some People Shouldn’t Vote’ May 24). Prest rejects the idea that there are uninformed voters who should stay home, but doesn’t endorse Coyne’s suggestion that the duty of voting should be legally mandated, either. Instead, Prest argues in favour of incentivized voting—using non-punitive means, such as small tax credits—to encourage voter turnout.

This three-way opinion exchange sparked a public debate among a cast of UBC political science graduate students and faculty. A number of key questions were raised and debated in this debate, for instance: What is the relationship between voting (as a political act) and democracy (as a practical and normative goal)? What is the proper relationship between political participation and political knowledge (or engagement)? What role does relegating politics to ‘experts’ play in maintaining social and political exclusion? A summary of this debate is provided below, with some edits for clarity.

Sean Gray Oh man, I was totally waiting for this [Stewart Prest’s May 30 rebuttal to David Moscrop’s May 24 article, ‘Some People Shouldn’t Vote’]. A much needed corrective. I’d also add that, empirically, the evidence on mandatory voting overwhelmingly suggests that it works – at least in producing the results proponents want.


David Moscrop I still don’t see how more [voting] is necessarily better. Any increase in turnout that doesn’t link real preferences to outcomes works against the well-being of voters. The political and social psychology literature is dripping with data showing the incompetence and ignorance of many voters and would-be voters. I do want more voters, but only voters who can make good and informed decisions.

Theorists need to touch down on reality on this one.


Allan Craigie So far I would have to say I am siding with David on this – if voter turnout is a proxy for political engagement, all incentivized voting does is reduce the ability to use voting as a proxy for engagement, it does nothing to address engagement. Discussions over voter turnout miss the mark with regards to improving Canadian democracy in a meaningful sense – ensuring preferences are transformed into outcomes. Declining voter turnout is a symptom of a problem, it is not the problem unto itself.


Edana Beauvais (Addressing David Moscrop): You want some reality David Moscrop? In reality, I’m sure, just after 1919, when Canadian women universally got the right to vote, many or most women voted “badly”: with little knowledge of public affairs, in accordance with how their fathers or husbands told them to vote, and contrary to their own interests. The solution back then was NOT to tell women to stay home; to tell them that ‘just because they can, doesn’t mean you should’ vote [a quote from David Moscrop’s Post article]. The solution was to engage women in politics, civil society, and public life, so that they could become better voters—to learn about public policy, and to gain the confidence to speak with their own voices.

And today all of those people who have been marginalized from politics—the poor, women, members of racialized groups, immigrants, and young people—who are more likely to vote “badly” (or not at all), should also be engaged. So they can become more effective members of our political community. Excluding them from the political community: (1) will never make them better participants, and (2) does nothing to improve democracy.


David Moscrop (Replying to Edana Beauvais’s comments): I don’t want to exclude them, Edana. Far from it — and it’s not just marginalized groups who make mistakes voting — but I do want to emphasize a need to empower citizens by providing opportunities to develop toolkits for political engagement.

If you have lower to middle class Canadians voting PC in Ontario, because someone says voting PC will create “Jobs!”, then you have a flawed vote.

I’m saying that it’s too cheap and easy to just ask for more [voting] without asking for better [voting]. We are willing to shill for the former without doing so for the latter.

If we really cared about those groups [marginalized people], we’d focus on producing and empowering better citizens who would *then* go vote thoughtfully.

We’re doing it backwards. And wrong.


Sean Gray (Addressing Dave Moscrop): Dave, your objection just really misses the mark, and I don’t usually like to get involved in these things. But, for the record, no one is saying that increasing voting turn out rates is going to be transformational in the ways you’re arguing against. It’s a straw man. Voting quality is not just measured in raw outcomes, nor the correlation of those outcomes to “real interests,” whatever those are. Your whole line of reasoning parallels Samuel Huntington’s [a US political scientist] in the 1970s: basically, that we don’t need to worry about low voter turn-out rates because having low turn-out rates increases political stability (because, you know, less people with opinions means, like, no political conflict) … which I guess is true, but it’s not democratic. And it shouldn’t be twisted into something democratic.

As to social and developmental psychology, we know that you cannot instantiate habits like voting, let alone voting well, without getting people to vote young. That’s why political scientists correlate the age at which you first start to vote to the likelihood of your voting in the future. It’s also why theorists from John Dewey (a US psychologist and philosopher) to Amy Gutmann (a US political scientist and president of U Pennsylvania) have focused on building democratic practices into primary school curriculums. The bottom line: if you want the sort of reflective, well-reasoned voters you say you want, sidelining them until they’re “ready” to vote isn’t going to produce those voters – it’s only when they’ve had the experience of voting, and the maybe even the experience of voting poorly, that you get reflective voters.

And, if you’re worried that those “mistakes” are costly – we also know that most individual level mistakes wash out at the aggregate, which is why political parties are content to target the “median voter.”

Edana Beauvais (Speaking in response to Allan Craigie): Haha Allan Craigie, are you suggesting that incentivized voting is bad because it would cause methodological difficulties for social scientists who have used “voting” as a proxy for “participation”? This is ridiculous, but I’ll humour you. Participation is a concept that can be measured with a number of different variables (voter turnout is one of the many variables we use to measure the concept of participation). Even under incentivized voting (and even under mandatory voting, where voting isn’t voluntary), you could still use the variable of turnout to measure the concept of participation.

Now, I don’t think too many researchers use “turnout” as a measure of the concept “engagement,” because even with non-incentivized voting many voters are completely disengaged from the political process (I think this is Dave’s point); and many non-voters are engaged but they aren’t voting (I think this is closer to Stewart’s point).

But I do think that inducing or encouraging voting WOULD induce and encourage engagement, because people would have to think for at least a moment before voting—and it leaves an impression. I remember the first time I voted municipally (it was embarrassingly recently). My brother made me do it. As in, my brother drove me to the polling station and told me to vote. So I sat down for about 20 minutes with the pamphlet that had all the candidates and a synopsis about their views, and I asked my brother what he thought about the candidates, and I came up with a list of people I wanted to vote for. So, it wasn’t the most the most engaged voting in the world—I didn’t watch hours of candidates speeches, and I didn’t do a study of the history of Vancouver municipal politics—but ever since then I’ve been moderately engaged with municipal politics. I’ve even gone to a few fundraisers (for two different parties). That’s just one story, but I think it reflects generally what happens when you make someone participate for the first time. I just read Sean Gray’s comment, and I think that this speaks to his point about the relationship between participation and engagement.

Edana Beauvais (Addressing David Moscrop): Dave, you describe a number of “errors” that voters make. (1) A few of these are linked to inherent human tendencies (for instance, the tendency to discount information if it is contrary to our pre-existing beliefs). This doesn’t ‘go away’ with more information or knowledge. Also, these errors are less of a concern, since they should be more or less evenly distributed in the population (if they are innate for all humans) or they should be randomly distributed in the population (if they are genetic hiccups). (2) Many of the errors you describe (the systematic errors) are actually symptoms of social or political exclusion (for instance, people with less education are more likely to vote for Hudak when Hadak says “jobs!”). Excluding these people from political life will not solve this tendency.

You [David Moscrop] say we’re “doing it backwards, and we’re doing it wrong.” Let’s go back to women in 1919. Do you think it would have been better for democracy, if women in 1919 were told “You CAN vote, but you SHOULD NOT. You are too ignorant, and you will do it wrong. Wait until some great academic creates a special civic school, and maybe one day when that happens, and you take time from work and family to complete a course at Dave Moscrop’s Center For Citizens Who Can’t Vote Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too, THEN MAYBE you can vote”?

I know that Zoolander reference was amusing, but seriously–would it have been better for democracy to tell newly enfranchised women to stay home and not vote? And if ‘NO’ (because obviously the answer is‘NO’), why is this different than what you’re suggesting?

David Moscrop I’m on my phone, so I can’t fully respond — yet! — but I’m fully with Sean on democratic education. The problem there is we haven’t done it, and so we have a few generations that haven’t benefitted from that.

And the data suggests that the distribution [of the tendency to make certain ‘errors’ when voting] isn’t fully randomly distributed. That’s my real concern: structural biases linked to parties or candidates and irrelevant factors (e.g. beauty, a compelling yet false narrative, etc.).

Ultimately I’d love a 100% turnout, with a NOTA option and citizens translating preferences into choices suited to them.

But in the meantime, I doubt that forcing someone to vote will turn them into thoughtful citizens. Ditto with just telling them to vote. Voting should be a part of a broader strategy, as Allan notes — and I argue in a Ottawa Citizen op-ed that’s out today or tomorrow.

I guess in part it boils down to learning as we go with those votes or learning and then voting. I prefer the latter, since I think it avoids distorted electoral outcomes. But I think we overlap here a lot.

Stewart Prest (Addressing Edana): Your point about participation producing engagement is bang on. And I’m not just saying that because I only had time to kinda sorta read the other comments. Deliberation in my view is caused by engagement; trying to structure the process the other way around won’t work. Voting is a habit that can be cultivated like any other. I’m actually quite agnostic as to how. Early exposure looms large, for instance, as does family and peer influence. What makes democracy special is not that the people choose correctly more often than in other systems —though that is certainly true in many contexts — but that the people choose, full stop. Deliberative democratic exercises like citizens assemblies only work if the population involved is broadly representative. The further you move from that by applying qualifying conditions to exercise of the franchise, the less representative the result will be, and the less legitimate the result will be. At a certain point you’ll cross the line from democracy to something else. Meritocracy, perhaps.

Edana Beauvais (Replying to David Vando-over Moscrop): Dave, (1) You are expressing some fundamental misunderstandings with respect to what is meant by the ‘distribution’ of these kinds of [cognitive] errors. I understand that people “systematically” (or regularly) perceive certain kinds of faces as being more trustworthy or likable (e.g., round faces, symmetrical faces). But we would say this this type of ‘error’ (or tendency) is “systematically distributed” if ONLY certain kinds of people make this error (e.g., only low-information, working class voters are more trusting of people with round, symmetrical faces). Which is not the case. All people are more trusting of people with round, symmetrical faces. So the distribution of this type of error is not “systematic.” Do you understand?

And like I said, you do describe some errors that are systematically distributed — and this tends to co-vary (as multiple people in this discussion have pointed out) with social marginalization and political exclusion. The solution to which is not more political exclusion.

(2) And with respect to the normative and even practical question of the temporal ordering of participation quantity vs. quality (with respect to which comes first: universal participation and then universal engagement, or universal engagement and then universal participation), you still haven’t explained how what you’re suggesting is any different from telling women in 1919 not to vote!


Sean Gray Yes, to everything Stewart and Edana are saying. But, Dave, while I like that we’re in agreement about democratic education, I think we disagree about whether it has already been successful in encouraging more informed voting habits. I think it’s fair to say that, historically speaking, supports for public education, etc., in the developed democracies have positively impacted the capacity of voters to make informed judgements. That doesn’t mean we can’t do more, but the progress we have made shouldn’t be downplayed.

I guess my real problem with this debate, and why I originally applauded Stewart’s intervention, is that you’ve been testing all of these arguments – some of which, I’m sorry, aren’t that grounded in the literature – in a public forum rather than with your colleagues first. It’s actually the same complaint you’ve made about voters: that you really need to know the literature, before writing something, because it really distorts public debate. In this case, I worry that it gives the public the wrong idea about where political scientists are at when it comes to increasing democratic participation, and what the literature on voting habits, systemic exclusion, education, etc, actually says.

I don’t mean to sound harsh! But I want to add, finally, that your writing on mandatory voting is probably the best example of what I’m talking about. Despite the one article you cite, most of the empirical literature on mandatory voting in developed democracies (including, most notably, Lijphart) arrives at the exact opposite conclusion. Actually, it arrives at two conclusions: (1) mandatory voting increases turn out rates among marginalized groups that, because they were not habituated to vote early, do not vote; and, (2) mandatory voting moves policy outcomes to the left, either through the election of more left-leaning parties, or through the engagement of a vastly more left-leaning electorate. I’m not saying these points can’t be challenged, but it’s really not fun to see you writing that mandatory voting has been empirically proven to be ineffective, FACT, or to call Coyne and Simpson idiots for endorsing it.

Finally, and to anticipate the one condition under which you do seem to allow mandatory voting, there is in fact no mandatory voting system in a developed democracy that does not include a NOTA option – either by allowing voters to simply show up, register, but not cast the ballot (and counting this) or by actually putting the option on the ballot. My point is that NOTA was part of the justification for mandatory voting from the get go – again, you kind of end up arguing against a straw man here.


David Moscrop There are some points I need to revise, a few to clarify, some I need to elaborate on, and most I stand strongly by.

But my thumbs are about to fall off. I’m going to stick up a blog post in response this weekend because I do take well some of these points — and none of them are taken personally — and I’m glad that they’ve been made.


Serbulent Turan Actually this seems like the ideal place to procrastinate in style so I thought I’ll thrown in one quick comment, mainly to David Moscrop’s first comment about “Theorists need to touch down on reality on this one.” Actually – as Sean was implying with the literature point – the discussion of democratic maturity is among the oldest in political theory and – surprisingly – one of the few that we actually managed to settle somewhat conclusively. The basic distinction Dave’s revisiting is between Plato’s understanding of politics as an issue of ‘theoria’ requiring expertise (like doctoring) versus Aristotle’s conception of politics as a matter of ‘praxis’. By isolating the political field to the supposed experts we now know fairly certainly that we’re simply exacerbating existing systems of oppression and exclusion.

This, also, explains Edana Beauvais’s sensitivity about the disenfranchisement of the fairer sex. To reemphasize what Sean has already said: democratic theory has established fairly substantially that praxis seems to make perfect – or at least better when it comes to political involvement. Hence all the discussion on early introduction with democratic values and behavior. It seemed enjoyable to me that a Platonic position from which Dave departs is used to ask the theorists to touch down reality… Plato being the idealist and all.

David Moscrop: To Serbulent’s point, which I very much agree with, I just want to add that I was actually thinking of both Aristotle and praxis, and Plato. The idea being that there’s a middle ground. I don’t think there’s ever pure one or the other. Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe’s 2010 book — Practical Wisdom — is great on this.

My concern is that the mere practice of voting doesn’t actually encourage or build real citizen capacity. I don’t think telling marginalized groups to go vote does much to build capacity. And even with mandatory voting, and more left governments and young voters, things don’t seem much better (look at countries with mandatory and the governments and policies they get — a very mixed bag).

I think everyone should vote and, and indeed, I’m very much in favour of higher turnout; but that should go hand-in-hand with a reason to vote and with building toolkits. The “go vote” push seems to let people off the hook. In the meantime, the poor translation of true preferences into outcomes that reflect those preferences is likely counter-productive.

[SP again. What follows are a couple of concluding comments provided after the original debate died down. As mentioned above, I’ll be posting more of these if and when they roll in.]

Edana: Just some final thoughts in conclusion. Even though a number of points (and counterpoints) have been raised, it sometimes feels like people in this debate are just talking past one another. I hope that Dave’s response to the criticisms his peers have raised addresses a few issues, including the ones I have outlined below.

Dave has stated that telling marginalized people to go vote does not build their political capacities. Sean, Stewart, Serbulent, and I have argued the contrary: that telling people to go vote does build political capacities. And while Sean, Stewart, Serbulent, and I have cited evidence that participation encourages engagement, Dave has not yet provided any concrete evidence for his position. I would be interested in hearing this evidence.

Dave claims that leaving politics to those who know best, and discouraging those who are less knowledgeable or engaged with politics will not contribute to exclusion, marginalization, or exploitation. I have asked Dave to show how telling today’s less engaged citizens (the young, the poor, non-whites, new immigrants) to stay home and not vote is different than telling newly enfranchised voters to stay home and not vote (such as Canadian women in 1919). I am still interested in hearing Dave’s response.

I would also like Dave to come up with some kind of list of ‘cognitive errors’ we should be worried about with respect to political participation, to show how these cognitive errors are systematic (as opposed to universal, or randomly distributed in the population), as well as to show how these errors could be overcome by the kind of ‘citizen education’ which Dave proposes.

Sean: Let me just echo Edana’s concluding remarks, which I think provide a very nice summary of this debate and a really good list of items for Dave to respond to. I think if there is one positive point worth taking away from the debate, it’s that we should focus a lot more attention on democratic education as vehicle for encouraging sustained political engagement – it’s pretty clear that everyone here cares deeply about this issue.

But, just to also be clear, I think that Dave’s arguments are not just empirically ungrounded, but deeply offensive – and this needs to be said. The idea that (certain) democratic citizens don’t know what’s best for them (and need to be told) is as old as democracy itself. As Dave and Serbulent noted, Aristotle thought that, ideally, citizens should learn both to rule and be ruled in turn – which is to say that to make “good” political decisions, citizens should know something (or a lot of things) about politics. It’s a nice thought, and one I certainly agree with. But, just so we’re clear, Aristotle also thought that the “ruling” part of his equation didn’t apply to women, slaves, or foreigners – all of who lacked a “deliberative part of the soul” and so who, to put it mildly, couldn’t and shouldn’t vote.

Replace “deliberative part of the soul” with “cognitive error” and “women, slaves, or foreigners” with “dumb people (or, better put, people Dave thinks are dumb)” and you’ve more or less got Dave’s position. Edana has already made this point with respect to women. Let me make the same point, more generally: The idea that certain people are too lazy, stupid, or just unlearned to know what their “real interests are” has been used, at one time or another, to deny voting rights to women, slaves, foreigners, the property-less classes, racial minorities, and indigenous groups, to name just a few. I’m glad Dave’s stumbled on a new, neutral sounding justification for exclusion, wrapped it up in scientific sounding terms, and packaged it with an air of paternal concern – “Let me tell you how to do things properly, then you can exercise your fundamental political rights …ok?” – but in my mind his argument is no different than those that have come before. Okay, it is different, some previous arguments were better: J.S. Mill [a nineteenth century political philosopher], for example, suggested just doubling (or in some cases tripling) the number of votes given to doctors, lawyers, and the educated, rather than asking the working classes and other “dumb” people to voluntarily exclude themselves.

Maybe we’re being unfair in our criticisms, but I don’t think we are. Just in case, I’ll add this: leaving everything else we’ve said aside, if Dave’s concern is really just with the distortion of political outcomes, maybe Dave should start by asking, “Are there any institutions, checks, or balances already in place that might deal with these?” The answer is “yes.” What none of us mentioned, but I think we should have, is that political parties, political representatives, think tanks, lobby groups, courts, etc, etc, all can and do play a role in putting forth new ideas, dismissing bad ideas, educating and mobilizing voters, protecting voters’ “true interests” (whatever those are), and so on. Of course, voting and voter turnout do matter. But neither encapsulates the entire democratic process. So, Dave, if the quality of outcomes really is your concern, my concluding remark is this: take a step back and consider the democratic system in its entirety – not just certain citizens’ place within it – and come up with some solutions that might address the concerns we’re raising but still speak to the problems you’re talking about.

To be continued…?

photo credit: TonyParkin67 via photopin cc

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