The right to vote should be restricted to those with a certain amount of knowledge, according to an essay written by McDonough School of Business Associate Professor Jason Brennan in the Princeton University Press blog Sep. 29.
Brennan argued that as the voting population increases, so does the number of misinformed voters.
“Individual votes no longer matter, and so most voters remain ignorant, biased, and misinformed,” Brennan wrote in the article.
The proposal has been criticized by some members of the Georgetown community.
In an interview with The Hoya, Brennan said the United States should implement a system of “epistocracy,” in which the right to vote in elections is withheld from citizens who do not demonstrate a certain level of social scientific knowledge.
“Voters are largely ignorant and misinformed which leads to sub-par politics,” Brennan said. “So it’s worth exploring the idea that certain kinds of restrictions on voting might actually lead to more just outcomes.”
Brennan’s op-ed cited recent points of contention in America for which solutions would have already been found had “high-information voters” — voters with a high enough level of knowledge to vote — been the only ones with a voice in politics.
The rise of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, as well as the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union on June 23, are the result of the voting population consisting of voters who do not demonstrate a high enough level of social scientific knowledge, according to Brennan.
On Oct. 5, New York Magazine’s Science of Us blog published an op-ed by Jesse Singal, a journalist with a background in public policy, entitled “What a Georgetown Professor Got Wrong When He Argued That Maybe Dumb People Shouldn’t Be Allowed to Vote,” which claimed that Brennan’s proposal could further increase inequality in the United States.
“Perhaps most obviously, there’s a very good chance that an epistocratic system would vastly increase the power wealthy people have in society, even relative to the already-quite-unequal system we currently have,” Singal wrote.
In an interview with The Hoya, government professor Hans Noel said he sees holes in the system that Brennan has proposed.
“I think that the proposed cure is worse than the disease,” Noel said. “That is, anything that you would do to restrict the right to vote or give extra votes to people who are apparently more qualified would create much more serious problems.”
The primary problem with implementing a knowledge-based test to determine who has the right to vote is that it can be lead to the suppression of certain minority groups’ views in politics, according to Noel.
“Some people are going to be systematically and demographically less likely to do well on this test,” Noel said. “I think it’s important to think back to when we had literacy tests in the South that were designed to disenfranchise black voters. I think that this test might inadvertently disenfranchise certain groups.”
Brennan said this suppression would only have a minimal effect on political decisions.
“In a sense, if you’re a small minority it doesn’t really matter whether you have the right to vote because your voice is going to be drowned out by others anyways,” Brennan said. “It’s a very pessimistic thing to say, but unfortunately it’s true.”
Noel said that he is confident that there will be no restriction of the right to vote any time soon.
“It is politically infeasible and with too many hurdles to leap, so I don’t think many politicians would take this direction, even if they like the idea,” Noel said. “I am critical of this, but I think it’s important that we play out different ideas.”
Matt Lettiero (COL ’20) said he recognized the benefits that Brennan highlighted but took issue with the idea of prohibiting “low information voters” from voting.
“Personally, I don’t agree with Professor Brennan. He argues that an epistocracy would result in more effective policies and more beneficial elected officials, which may be true, but that would be at the cost of taking away equal say in government, which is a fundamental part of our democracy,” Lettiero said.
Atreya Tadepalli (SFS ’19) said he sees Brennan’s proposal as a potential threat to those who are already disadvantaged in society and as running contrary to the bedrock of American politics.
“The proposal of an epistocracy underscores the need for greater civic education amongst our citizens,” Tadepalli said. “In a system where wealthy individuals can already influence elections by contributing more money to candidates, the addition of a vote significance level can reduce the influence that low income communities have within our electoral system.”
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