“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So (allegedly) said Winston Churchill. And who’s to disagree?
Exhibit A: the comments to my recent column on the ABC’s Drum, which bemoans that “we have stopped discriminating between argument and sophistry.” Seems few in the comments – even those who appear to agree – attempted to do just that in the spirit of elevating the debate. Instead, it wallowed in the usual name calling and obtuse table thumping. Irony died a little that day.
But I want to sideline that debate for now and get to a more fundamental question of electoral reform: should voters have to pass some kind of test before they qualify to vote?
Whether you have compulsory or voluntary voting, one of the major challenges democracies face in appointing suitable leaders is voter ignorance. An uninformed electorate is open to exploitation by charismatic or populist leaders, or mass hysteria that can sweep a population towards self-destructive ends, or just votes for poor leaders and policies because it doesn’t know any better.
An informed electorate is presumably better able to assess the values and policies of individual politicians and parties and judge whether they’re in the best interests of themselves and the nation, and generally ward off interests or corrupt forces taking power.
As Thomas Jefferson said: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”
(Note that, unlike ignorance, voter bias is not a fundamental problem, as democracy seeks not truth, but fair representation. So you can be biased towards your own interests and vote accordingly, and democracy can still function properly.)
One of the responsibilities of the state is to provide sufficient education to all its citizens such that they are capable of making informed voting decisions. But the state can’t force the citizens to do their homework and make informed decisions on voting day. But perhaps it should be able to, in a sense.
Imagine if you were born a non-voting citizen (as we already are), but instead of ticking over to become a fully fledged voter at age 18 (or whatever arbitrary age), you had to pass a civics test in order to qualify to vote?
The test would include the basics of the governmental system in your nation, perhaps some core aspects of law, economics, ethics and whatever other facts were deemed necessary to make a minimally informed voting decision. The bar could be set fairly low, to just rule out those who think we live in a monarchy ruled by shape-shifting lizards, or it could be set higher, to eliminate those who don’t understand what habeas corpus or inflation mean.
Surely, this would diminish the voting pool, but it might mean better informed decisions.
But it could also mean that only a select portion of the electorate are represented, and they might use their power to favour themselves to the disadvantage of the non-voters. They could even stack the test or the education system such that only their preferred clan ever gain voting power.
So there’d need to be checks and balances. First, there’d have to be some constitution that guaranteed sufficient education be offered to all citizens such that they’d qualify to become voters. Secondly, this constitution would only be alterable with a referendum voted on by everyone.
Another check would be to limit the qualified voters’ influence to just one house of parliament. Currently in the UK this is virtually the case with the non-elected House of Lords serving as an upper house to the popularly-elected House of Commons. However, I’m not convinced the UK has it the right way around.
Traditionally, the popularly-elected lower house is the primary source of new legislation, with the aristocratic/federally-elected upper house serving the primary function of providing oversight and a more tempered view on proceedings (although both houses can introduce bills in most systems). Where the former is presumably a populist rabble, the latter is more esteemed and steeped in the wisdom of ages, unburdened by perilously short electoral cycles.
In a qualified-voter system, it might work better the other way around: the lower house, primarily responsible for creating legislation, could be elected by qualified voters; the upper house, providing supervision of that legislation, could be popularly elected by all citizens, perhaps by a proportional representation system.
This means the members elected to the lower house will be elected by those who are best informed, hopefully leading to a higher calibre of lawmaker. However, to ensure that every citizen had representation, the upper house serves as a check against any legislation that would disadvantage the non-qualified voters in particular.
This way we have the benefits of qualified voters, but with a check against abuse of the system.
Could it work? I really don’t know. It’s more a thought experiment, or a proposal to shift the Overton Window, rather than a genuine proposal. But I reckon it merits consideration, if only to know decisively why we wouldn’t such a system.