Should you be able to vote on legislation or constitutional amendments you haven’t read or studied?
In California, our answer to this question is: absolutely yes. Voters routinely cast ballots on measures about which they know little more than what they’ve seen in TV ads and on ballot title and summaries.
How does this make any sense? It is one thing to vote for a person to represent you there. Such a vote is by its nature a guess, and a prayer. You can’t be expected to read someone’s mind, or know exactly where he or she is taking you. You have to rely on labels. That’s the nature of representative democracy.
But voting on legislation or constitutional amendments should be something else. The details really matter. Unintended consequences are likely. It’s irresponsible to vote on laws and to amend a constitution without knowing what you’re doing.
What’s the solution? A modest proposal: California should follow the example of its most popular election system – the one run by the motion picture academy to select Oscar winners.
The Academy recognizes that for difficult, technical films without wide release – foreign films and documentaries – it’s not fair to let people vote if they haven’t seen the films. So the Academy sets up special screenings that people must attend to vote on those particular awards. This makes sense: how can you vote on something so different and obscure (as foreign film) if you haven’t seen the movie?
By the same logic, the state should bar voters from casting ballots on initiatives they haven’t studied. To be eligible to vote on measures, Californians would have to attend some sort of non-partisan review of the measures. It could be structured like a hearing, with testimony from supporters, opponents, and experts on the issues. Because of the costs of travel, an online course could be created for voters to complete before they were eligible to vote on initiatives.
Yes, this would limit the franchise – and there would be all sorts of howls of protest. But the answer to such criticism would be easy: why are you supporting the right of people to make profound legal and constitutional changes when they won’t even bother to learn about the measures?