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Voter IQs need refresher course

Posted: May 4, 2012 10:03 a.m.
Updated: May 7, 2012 5:00 a.m.

Republicans are delighted to hear they scored better than Democrats and independents in a new survey of political knowledge. Fine. I’m sure Democrats would be just as boastful if their side scored better. Everybody in politics wants to believe that their side is brilliant and the others are a bunch of nitwits.

What’s disturbing to me is how many participants, including members of the GOP, managed to give wrong answers to the Pew Research Center survey’s 17 quite basic questions -- including, which party has the donkey as its symbol and which party is called the “GOP.”

Perhaps no one should be shocked that more than a third of the independents did not know that the donkey is the Democrats’ mascot and “GOP,” or Grand Old Party, is the nickname of the elephant party.

But more than one-fifth of Republicans didn’t know they were the GOP and a third of Democrats missed the donkey question.

On eight of 13 questions about politics, Republicans outscored Democrats by an average of 18 percentage points, according to Pew. That’s at least partly because Republicans tend to be older, which in my experience makes them more attentive to the news. Back when I taught college journalism classes, I was both amused and appalled by how little students keep up with the news unless you assign them to do it.

But it is hardly a trivial pursuit for voters to know, for example, which party wants to restrict access to abortion. Yet a third of both parties and independents in the Pew survey answered incorrectly -- and more than one-fourth of all three groups did not know it is Democrats who “support raising taxes on higher income people.”

Almost the same percentage did not know which party favors a “path to citizenship” for illegal immigrants. It’s the Democrats.

Ten percent of Republicans guessed wrong when asked which party was “more conservative on most issues,” but that’s better than the 40 percent of Democrats who also got it wrong.

Keep this in mind the next time you hear someone complain about low voter turnout. Do we really want to encourage even more Americans to vote?

Well, yes, said Norman Ornstein, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, when I reached him by telephone. Although he hastened to add, “not because I expect to see some great infusion of enlightenment as a result.”

No, it is relief from radical mood swings and polarized politics that Ornstein is after. In that pursuit, expanding the electorate tops a list of useful suggestions that he and Tom Mann of the Brookings Institution urge us to adopt in their appropriately titled new book about Washington’s political dysfunction, “It’s Even Worse Than It Looks.”

It is their hope that making it more convenient for Americans to vote would encourage more moderates and independents to vote and cool off some of the hyper-partisanship that increasingly has gridlocked legislation in Washington since President Barack Obama’s election.

“Higher turnout would attract more citizens with less-fixed partisan and ideological commitments into the electorate,” they write.

Ornstein invited me to imagine near universal voting in the USA, as Australia already demands with their mandatory voting laws. Failure to vote without a written excuse can bring a fine equivalent to about $15, he said. If you really don’t like the choices, you also can vote for “none of the above,” a choice that I am sure many Americans would like to see implemented here.

It is a noble dream to imagine the end of base-focused campaigns, in which each party tries to mobilize their strongest supporters and suppress the likely voters for the other side. But, considering how many Americans oppose any intrusion by government into their lives, I don’t expect to see mandatory voting very soon.

Besides, there is something to be said for those who care enough about voting to take the time and effort to do it. The challenge for our political leadership and for us in the media is to help them receive good information as to whom and what they’re voting for.

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