NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


November 1, 2004

Americans head to the polls tomorrow to choose their president, but according to a report released by the Cato Institute, voters don't know enough about the issues and the candidates to cast an informed ballot on November 2.

"An informed electorate is a prerequisite for democracy," writes Ilya Somin, assistant professor of law at George Mason School of Law and author of the study. "If voters do not know what is going on in politics, they cannot rationally exercise control over government policy."

According to Somin, several studies demonstrate a lack of political knowledge by American voters:

  • A recent survey found that 70 percent of respondents were unaware of the recent Medicare prescription drug benefit and 58 percent said they knew "nothing" or "very little" about the USA Patriot Act, two important and widely reported issues in the upcoming election.
  • Despite widespread press coverage of large recent job gains, the majority of respondents in a June 7 poll mistakenly believed that there had been a net loss of jobs in 2004.
  • A majority mistakenly believed that the Bush administration sees a link between Saddam Hussein and the September 11 attacks (despite the administration's own repeated disclaimers of any such connection), and most do not know even approximately how many American lives have been lost in the Iraq war.
  • Despite the ongoing debate over America's troubled relationship with Europe and the onset of European unification, 77 percent admit they know "little" or "nothing" about the European Union.

Somin's concern is not that the elite will deviously manipulate the public, rather that the elite simply rule by default. "What voters don't know about, they can't meaningfully control," he writes, "and that threatens the very heart of democracy."

Source: Ilya Somin, "When Ignorance Isn't Bliss: How political Ignorance Threatens Democracy," Cato Institute, September 22, 2004.

Cato report


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