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Voters With Eyes Wide Shut

How informed is the electorate, researchers ask, and does it really matter?

August 22, 2004|Jerry Schwartz | Associated Press Writer

From her work station in western Montana, Kelly Flanagan can see America's beauty, and she can hear America's ignorance.

Each day, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., the 21-year-old volunteer looks out at the mountains and answers the phone. The calls to Project Vote Smart come from New York and New Mexico, from California and Connecticut, from Americans who want to be good voters but just don't know how.

Who is my congressman? they ask. How can I reach him? How do I register to vote? Who is running for office? Where do they stand on the issues?

Some of them know exactly what to ask. But others, she says, "have a very vague idea of what they want" -- they are stumbling through the labyrinth of American democracy without a map.

There are many of those people, and come November, they will help choose the next leader of the most powerful country on the planet.

They are ignorant though they are awash with information -- on television and radio, in print and on the Internet. They are ill-informed because they do not have the time or wherewithal or inclination to learn, or misinformed because they are at the mercy of spinmeisters.

"We're not well informed, and a lot of that is our fault," says Mario M. Cuomo, former governor of New York. "If the public chose to inform itself, there's no question that it could."

It would be an overstatement to paint America as a confederacy of dunces; there are those who say we may not be a nation of civic superstars, but we know enough to get by.

Still, the fact that more than half of American adults do not know that the Senate has 100 members is disquieting.

*

On Aug. 21, 1858, as many as 20,000 people assembled in Ottawa, Ill., to witness Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, candidates for U.S. Senate, debate the issue of slavery.

This moment would be remembered as the apex of American political discourse. It gave rise to the notion that America was once a place where serious and principled politicians debated the issues for the benefit of knowledgeable citizens.

But this is a myth, says Michael Schudson, a UC San Diego sociology professor. Yes, this was a high point, but in some ways it wasn't all that different from today's much-maligned debates.

Schudson, author of "The Good Citizen: A History of American Civic Life," says the debaters' reasoned arguments were larded with ad hominem attacks and political tricks.

Second, few people heard what Lincoln and Douglas had to say. And that was fine with them. They were there for the sport of it, to cheer their favorites. They couldn't even vote for senators, who at the time were chosen by the state Legislature.

In the republic's early years, Schudson says, voters deferred to the elite -- respected and wealthy members of the community who would signal how they should vote.

In the 19th century, the voters deferred to their parties. "The 19th-century citizen [just] ... had to know if he was a Democrat or Whig," Schudson says.

In the 20th century, they deferred to no one. Secret ballots, party primaries and other reforms of the Progressive era put the onus of citizenship on the citizens. To make informed decisions, voters would have to understand the system, learn about the candidates and their positions and keep up with the events of the day.

But did they?

Through the years, pollsters have tried to assess how much Americans know. Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, in their book "What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters," looked at 3,700 survey questions posed between 1940 and 1994.

In 1945, 45% knew that the government regulated radio.

In 1952, 27% could name two branches of government.

In 1970, 24% could identify the secretary of state.

In 1988, 47% could locate England on a map.

All together, Americans knew the answers about 40% of the time.

The numbers have remained fairly steady over the years. Delli Carpini points out that they mask differences among groups -- women, minorities and young people score low.

Most of the ignorant aren't stupid, he says. They just lack motivation to learn, or access to information, or the education necessary to negotiate the system.

"Over time, if you look at a broad level of knowledge, most people are kind of middling informed," says Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "They're certainly not the ignoramuses that they're often painted as."

Regardless, they know enough -- at least according to Samuel Popkin, a professor at UC San Diego.

Popkin suggests that Americans vote the same way they do most things -- by filtering small bits of information and using their instincts.

"That's what they do, and it's not so bad," he says. "That's how they hire people, choose baby sitters ... Somehow, in your gut, you figure these things out."

Popkin calls it "gut rationality." It works best when the choices are clear and uncomplicated, he says. Most elections are like that: "People don't learn more than they need to to make a simple choice. You're choosing between two brands."

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