The U.S. has an informed electorate problem. For people who pay attention to the news and policy advances within your state and local government, this is probably a source of frustration and not news. The founding fathers thought that an informed electorate was an important component to a functional democracy. Their litmus test to determine whether a person was informed, however, was whether they were a white, male landowner. Contextually, during the time of the crafting of the constitution, a landowner was a person of means, afforded the opportunity of education, or at least the resources to obtain an informed opinion on a subject at hand. It’s important to note that the constitution did provide the electorate the right to determine who was eligible to vote, despite the obvious conflict of interest.
Why restrict who can vote at all? Why was the concept of one person, one vote so foreign to our forefathers? There are two reasons at play here:
- A voter must have the means to be educated to a point in order to make rational decisions about the representative they choose
- They must have a personal stake in the outcome of the voting decision
I’m not a constitutional scholar, but I think it is pretty obvious that you want voters to be able to make rational decisions about who they choose to represent them. The litmus test for the ability to make rational, educated decisions was, at least according to the founding fathers, whether a person owned property. Further, a property owner arguably had a personal stake in the outcome of the actions of their representatives.
Fast forward to today. In theory, there is no law restricting who can vote, beside felons. A person neither has to be a land owner, nor rational for that matter. Americans are rightly wary of any “voting tests”, given the history of disenfranchisement, including the 3/5ths compromise, and “literacy tests.” We have arrived, again at least in theory, to universal suffrage. There is of course gerrymandering, voter roll purging and ID laws but I’ll leave that aside for the moment.
There is likely no possible way to ensure that each voter is both educated on the issues they are voting for, and acting in their own best interest. People are free to vote as a putative measure against the other party, even at the expense of their own interest. This of course has been particularly visible since the last election, and in my opinion, set to be a defining feature of electoral politics in the decades to come.