Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Examining the paradox of voter engagement

There’s an conundrum associated with voter engagement work.

In nonprofit voter engagement, the question associated with this paradox occasionally seems to be the elephant in the room. How do we balance the desire for educated, informed voters (a must, according to Thomas Jefferson and others, for an effective democratic government) with the democratic goal of expanding voter participation to all – even those who have less formal education and/or direct political knowledge, like some of the individuals or constituency groups served by nonprofits?

Jennifer L. Hochschild of Harvard University has written a summary and explanation of this paradox in the Election Law Journal (Vol.9, No.2, 2010).

She begins by reviewing the history of the expansion of the electorate in the United States. Beginning with the removal of the tax and property requirements for voting in the 19th century, and moving all the way up to the modern-day felon re-enfranchisement movement, Hochschild demonstrates how throughout the past 200 years America has been trending towards eliminating requirements or provisions for eligible voters in favor of a more all-inclusive democracy. The paradox at hand, Hochschild explains, is that despite our professed need for a body of informed and engaged voters to select leaders and direct policy, throughout US history (with the exception of women’s suffrage in 1920) we have been gradually lowering the median voter’s level of education and socioeconomic status (both regarded as positively correlated with political knowledge) through enfranchisement reforms, and regard such reforms and their underlying goal of a broad electorate as a crucial and desirable element of American democracy.

Hochschild goes on to describe several explanations of this paradox. A few are more theoretical explanations perhaps best left to the social scientists – e.g., whether or not the US is truly a “democracy”; whether our citizens are really capable of connecting knowledge to the correct corresponding political choice; etc.

However, sprinkled throughout Hochschild’s review are descriptions of arguments that have special and welcome resonance to us nonprofits, reminding us why it makes sense for our democracy’s well-being to equally and unconditionally engage all our clients, from all backgrounds, in voting and elections.

Points include:
  • The disconnect between formal education and the necessary knowledge to cast an informed vote. Hochschild describes the alternative sources voters have for this knowledge, including trusted elites, community groups, a voter’s retrospective, or simply practice in voting or in other political acts like educating, organizing, demonstrating etc. In other words, the relationship between education/socioeconomic status and the political knowledge level of a voter may not be as important as once believed. In addition, political knowledge surveys have been shown to be deeply flawed in their construct, creating the distinct possibility that we have a better-informed electorate than current surveys indicate.
  • The relatively weighty costs of an exclusive electoral system (i.e., the danger of having a subset of people unable to express political grievances by voting; the overall inequity of such a system; the damage to the principle of the right of individuals to pursue his or her interests).
  • The systems in place – such as political parties, advocacy groups, the media etc. – that may act as a “replacement” or “amplifier” for the relatively lower political knowledge of the average voter, stepping in to fill in the gaps.
All of this is not to say that voter education activities are somehow mute. Voter education should be a part of any nonprofit’s voter engagement plan, and there are many forms those activities can take. Nevertheless, the arguments Hochschild discusses serve to remind us of the importance of pursuing an inclusive democracy in general, of the reasonableness in expanding the definition of the informed voter and of the systems already in place that get voters the information they need to make an informed decision - all of which can reassure and revitalize nonprofits in our quest to remind and help our constituents to vote on Election Day.

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