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The Ubiquity of Political Ignorance

Thursday morning I went out to breakfast at a local diner, accompanied by my trusty tablet PC and a good book. At the next table was a group of four older couples, probably fairly young retirees, and they were talking about the upcoming election. Specifically, they were talking about the referendums on this year’s state ballot. And it was absolutely obvious that none of them has the faintest idea what any of those initiatives do or what the real arguments for and against them are.

On the one hand, I can’t blame them too much. There are six measures on the ballot this year in Michigan and there has been an astonishing barrage of commercials about them, many of them full of the most ridiculous lies. For example, Proposal 2 would add an explicit right to collective bargaining for both private and public workers in the state constitution; this was in response to attempts by our current governor and the Republican-controlled legislature to duplicate what Wisconsin has done and strip many public workers of their right to negotiate union contracts.

Opponents of the measure have been making arguments that range from the trite and stupid to the downright dishonest. They’ve put out a bunch of spots with the generic and pointless argument that we shouldn’t be “cluttering up the constitution,” as if any change to the constitution is just inherently bad. And that kind of argument works with folks who are ignorant. One of the men at the next table actually said that he was going to vote no on all of them because “I don’t see why we need any more laws. We have enough laws.”

Worse, opponents of the measure have put out ads saying that if the law passes, schools “will lose the ability to quickly get rid of teachers who are convicted felons or sexual deviants.” That’s just plain old demagoguery, a lie designed to scare people. And again, it works. In a state with a strong union tradition, I don’t know if it will work well enough to make the amendment fail, but I guarantee that a lot of low-information voters are convinced by that kind of fear-mongering and will vote against it.

The folks at the next table were absolutely average people, “hail fellows well-met” and their wives, the kind of people who hold the door for you at the grocery store, play bingo at the church down the block, cheer on the local high school football team and spoil their grandkids. All very nice people, I’m sure, but utterly ignorant. And every one of them, I’m quite certain after hearing their conversation, is going to cast their vote on Tuesday on all of those ballot issues without having the foggiest idea what they mean. And that’s just depressing.

Comments

  1. dean says

    Two of my neighbors follow that line. They are voting against meddling with the state constitution – except for the ones they like. They will vote in favor of having a super majority to raise taxes and in favor of proposition six.

    Because they enjoy being free people and they love puppies, or some crap equally as stupid.

  2. steve84 says

    Direct democracy is usually a terrible idea. The only country that makes it work is Switzerland. And I bet even there they have to work overtime to keep the stupid people and their lies in check.

  3. Jordan Genso says

    I was disappointed in my brother’s response when I asked him his opinion on Proposal 6. He doesn’t follow politics very much (he prefers sports news over political news), but he is a very rational person. He said that he would be voting ‘yes’ on it, because he thinks “the people should decide if we’re going to build another bridge to Canada”.

    After I explained the proposal in detail, he did eventually see why it would be bad if it passed. But that conversation showed me that misleading political ads are unfortunately effective on low-information voters.

  4. Armored Scrum Object says

    I’m fairly sympathetic to the “cluttering up the constitution” argument generally. I think it’s a reasonable position that there is constitutional subject matter and non-constitutional subject matter. Of course, it is pretty widely agreed that concise guarantees of basic rights are constitutional subject matter, and the Michigan Constitution already puts such guarantees front-and-center in Article I, so I don’t know what these people are on about.

  5. eric says

    I agree, I think there’s a lot of coin-flipping (or the equivalent) that goes on with local races, local amendenments, measures, proposals, etc…

    I bet that group of four could’ve basically articulated some differences between Romney and Obama. Maybe nothing deep, but at least a 30-second “elevator speech” analysis. But if you asked them who was running for school board or how big some bond measure was in relation to the district’s revenue, you’d just get a big blank stare.

  6. Trebuchet says

    If the number of ballot issues in Michigan is anything like what we have here in Washington, I can readily understand the attitude those folks have to them. I’ve long since concluded that you’ll never go far wrong just voting “NO” on the initiatives, most of which are just Tim Eyman padding his wallet anyhow. Referenda are a little more difficult. The Constitutional Ammendments are mostly housekeeping measures and safe to vote for.

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    … the referendums on this year’s state ballot. … any of those initiatives …

    Uh, ahem, Mr Brayton sir – referenda ≠ initiatives.

  8. says

    I’m fairly sympathetic to the “cluttering up the constitution” argument generally.

    So am I. While I’m in favor of what several of these initiatives would do, I don’t think they belong in the state constitution. For instance, I’m all for renewable energy initiatives, but the state could do that by passing a law. It doesn’t need to be in the constitution. Of course, Proposition 6 is the most ridiculous of the lot, a power grab by an old billionaire to protect his monopoly on having a bridge to Canada in the Detroit area. It’s an attempt to amend the constitution to protect the business interests of one greedy citizen who has done considerable harm to Detroit. (He’s the owner of Michigan Central Station, fer cryin’ out loud!0

  9. Reginald Selkirk says

    They’ve put out a bunch of spots with the generic and pointless argument that we shouldn’t be “cluttering up the constitution,” as if any change to the constitution is just inherently bad.

    I think altering the constitution ought at least to be difficult. Look to California; starting with proposition 13, when voters realized they could restrict their property taxes. Free beer and peanuts for everyone! And since it is effectively a constitutional level change, the governor and legislature have very limited ability to circumvent such stupidity.

  10. says

    Apparently anyone who votes tomorrow to flouridate water in Kansas is supporting forced medication by government which violates individual liberty and will poison us all.

  11. tbp1 says

    Sometimes such amendments or initiatives are actually pretty hard to figure out (on purpose?), so it’s difficult to know what you’re voting for or against.

    I’m also of the school that thinks Constitutions are for broad outlines of how government is supposed to work, and for spelling out basic protections, not for things that, as someone else pointed out, are really legislation. And of course, California is the poster child for what can go wrong with ballot initiatives.

    That said, there are times—especially after reading an article like this—I wish there were some way to test basic civic knowledge before allowing people to vote. I know it’s not really practical, for any number of reasons, but still…

  12. pault says

    Only six proposals? We have eleven on the ballot here in Florida, everything from property tax breaks for disabled veterans to amending the state Constitution to allow religious organizations to receive tax dollars. None of the amendment were placed on the ballot by petition, the legislature is responsible for all of them. The consensus of what I hear is that they will all be rejected because nobody trusts the Republican Legislature or the Governor.

  13. scorinth says

    I was amazed to look up what would be on the ballot in my area of Indiana and see not one of those ballot measures, just choices between candidates. I guess we’re just weird here.

  14. Jordan Genso says

    Orac @8 (emphasis mine)

    So am I. While I’m in favor of what several of these initiatives would do, I don’t think they belong in the state constitution. For instance, I’m all for renewable energy initiatives, but the state could do that by passing a law. It doesn’t need to be in the constitution.

    But what if the energy industry has the legislature in their pocket? If the people of the state identify a law that they would love to see passed in Lansing, but they know that the strength of the opponents (in terms of lobbying and campaign contributions) is too great to overcome, why not pass it through a proposal? Isn’t it a way to overcome corruption* within the government?

    If you were to support the same proposal, if instead it were a bill in Lansing, why not support it as a proposal in case the elected officials in Lansing don’t do the right thing?

    *not saying that the lack of a law like Proposal 3 indicates there is corruption, but making that statement in more general terms as to the benefits of passing a proposal when the legislators are unlikely to do it themselves.

  15. kerrietiedemann says

    tpb1 @#12:

    Sometimes such amendments or initiatives are actually pretty hard to figure out (on purpose?), so it’s difficult to know what you’re voting for or against.

    I remember a TA in my college politics class saying something along those lines, that they are intentionally worded in a vague and misleading way. Question 5 on Maryland’s ballot is for a congressional redistricting plan simply says it’s making new boundaries “based on recent census figures, as required by the United States Constitution” which to the uninformed individual sounds fine and dandy but when you actually see the proposal it’s amazing that MD can make itself even more gerrymandered than it already is.

  16. brucegee1962 says

    We have one main referendum on the ballot in Virginia. Interestingly, it’s on just about the sole issue where I think Republicans have it right. Apparently there are some localities that have used their right of eminent domain to seize property, not in order to do the regular point of eminent domain (that is, building railroads, widening roads, etc.) but in order to turn around and resell the property to developers. Because jobs, tax base, yadda yadda.

    Although, as I said, it’s Republicans who want to get rid of this practice this and Democrats who are ostensibly in favor of it, I haven’t heard anybody who’s actually campaigning against the referendum to ban it, so it will probably pass.

  17. tubi says

    To get super local and some of the rationalizing that people do, we have two school levy questions to vote on in my school district. The first would continue the existing levy for another two years, the second, contingent on the first passing, would add an additional $15 or so to the average home’s property tax. One of the things the second levy would do is make all-day, everyday knidergarten available for all students. Right now, it’s by lottery and costs extra. Our neighbor, who is voting for Romney and for both horrible amendments (Minnesota), asked me if the kindergarten option would be available next school year, or if it would take a while. They have a daughter starting K in the fall. If it affected her, they would vote yes, if it wouldn’t help her they’d vote no.

    Fortunately, it would start right away, but the fact that they made their decision that way was infuriating. To be fair, though, at least they tried to get informed.

  18. whheydt says

    Re: Reginald Selkirk @ #10.

    Prop. 13 is an interesting case that you have grossly over-simplified.

    I voted in that election.

    In the first place, part of the problem was that the county assessors were doing their jobs properly. They were regularly reassessing property in an era when real estate prices were rising rapidly, which meant that local governments could get a lot more revenue (because of higher assessments) and lower tax *rates* at the same time…which made for good political capital. The result was that people on fixed incomes were being priced out of their homes.

    Coupled with this was a State Supreme Court decision requiring the state to ensure relatively even per pupil school funding across all districts on the state, which meant state funds going to poorer districts.

    The combination meant that the counties were crowing about how “responsible” they were while the state was getting its budget hammered.

    Yes there are a bunch of downsides that could be fixed, though no one has seriously tried to fix them.

    On the current ballot, I’ve been taking a close look at a couple of the 11 ballot propositions we have this year. Both are initiate statutes…which makes my first question: Why are these not being dealt with by the legislature if they’re such good ideas?

    On one of them, the arguments for are basically an emotional appeal and very weak. The arguments against are even worse. On balance, I’ll be voting against this one…in spite of the arguments, not because of them. (There are too many unanswered–and, to me, obvious–questions.)

    On the other, I can see why the legislature won’t touch it. There are ways any legislator could be accused of being “soft on crime” for doing the rational and reasonable thing. That one I intend to vote for.

  19. eric says

    bruce @17 – actually, nothing like that occurred in VA as far as I’m aware. My information isn’t very deep but, from what I’ve read, what’s happening is this: after the Supremes ruled states could use eminent domain for economic development (Kelo vs. New London, 2005), the VA state legislature got alarmed and made doing it illegal. No cases of the state gov doing eminent domain under Kelo’s relaxed rules have actually occurred. The GOP wants to take the additional step from “illegal” to making it unconstitutional. In principle, this would have the effect of making it harder to change in the future without doing anything in the interim.

    I’m ambivalent. I agree its a bad idea when states do it. I don’t want VA government doing it But I also agree with the folks who think constitutinoal changes should be reserved for major issues. If this has never been an issue for VA, and its already illegal, I don’t see much good reason to change the constitution to forbid it. I will likely vote against it because right now the current law seems to be doing the trick with no bad side effects, and its always possible that the consitutional amendment language will carry with it some additional problem or be wierdly intepreted. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Or maybe more apropros: if the current fix is working, don’t try and re-fix the fix. ;)

  20. eric says

    Oh, and incidentally, there’s another constitutional measure on the VA ballot. As far as I can tell, its pretty reasonable. Right now the constitution specifies that the VA legislature has one specific day to meet to consider vetoed legislation – the sixth Wednesday after the end of each session. The change would give them the right to delay that day by up to one week. The justification is that sometimes it the one specified day falls on a holiday.

  21. says

    Hard to understand why those Joe-Average types and their wives don’t spend their time in this warm and welcoming place, learning about how wrong they are from the smart guys here, and why they should all become part of the feminism-plus movement.

  22. says

    I don’t agree with this idiotic notion of ballot initiatives and refuse to vote on them, except at the municipal level, where they actually make sense. Goddamned things are just a terrible idea.

  23. says

    liliray said:

    Hard to understand why those Joe-Average types and their wives don’t spend their time in this warm and welcoming place, learning about how wrong they are from the smart guys here, and why they should all become part of the feminism-plus movement.

    Well, you and your charming husband sure seem to find it difficult to tear yourselves away…

  24. Chris from Europe says

    Direct democracy is usually a terrible idea. The only country that makes it work is Switzerland.

    I object. A whole extreme right-wing party there lives from xenophobic propositions. If Gaddafi was right about something, then about Switzerland.

  25. says

    It’s me. I’m the guilty one. She just has the frequent misfortune of reading over my shoulder.

    Ed has a knack for interesting articles and valuable insights. I’ve never had a problem with him or his posts. Unfortunate that he’s bought into the feminist fantasy, but he has enough strong points to compensate. Plus, he’s a Rush fan, and that pretty much absolves him of all wrongdoing in my book.

    It’s the sewer down here I unwittingly stepped into (and got crap all over my shoes) a few times that we both find distasteful. But you go ahead and enjoy yourself, eh?

  26. demonhauntedworld says

    My modest proposal to deal with low-information voters is to have a skill-testing question on the ballot. Something along the lines of: “The earth is at least 4.5 billion years old: True or false?”

  27. says

    And what meaningful information would that give you about their ability to make an informed decision about who to support for public office?

  28. demonhauntedworld says

    And what meaningful information would that give you about their ability to make an informed decision about who to support for public office?

    Well, it would weed out a lot of baseline ignoramuses right off the bat.

  29. says

    Bollocks. Not knowing the age of the earth no more makes you a baseline ignoramus than not knowing the number of electrons in Carbon. And neither one tells you anything about what qualities to look for in someone seeking political power.

  30. krisrhodes says

    Ed, care to give a brief list of what you think are the best votes on the 6 ballot initiatives?

  31. donkensler says

    Sometimes you have to put these things into the constitution to get them out of the reach of the legislature. Statutory initiatives are possible in MI, but can be amended or repealed by the legislature in the next session. In any event, the only difference between a statutory initiative and a constitutional amendment is a few extra signatures, so why not go for the amendment?

    I’m not going to speculate on whether the MI legislature is corrupt or is just ideologically disposed to support Matty Maroun and the utilities, and to oppose unions, mind you, but if something like Proposal 3 were passed as a statute, it would be gone within days of the convening of the new legislature.

    It’s fine to say let the legislature handle these things, but after the ’10 election the Reps were in complete control of redistricting in MI, and conjured up a plan that means Dems would have to get around 54-55% of the vote to control the legislature. As a result, the result of the election of ’10 probably means Reps will control the legislature for the next 10 years, and given some luck in the election for governor in ’18 could maintain control for the decade after that, no matter what a majority of people in Michigan want.

    That said, my votes will be NYYYNN

  32. grumpyoldfart says

    …there has been an astonishing barrage of commercials about them, many of them full of the most ridiculous lies.

    Is it legal to tell lies in commercials?
    Or is it illegal but the prosecutors fail to act?

  33. demonhauntedworld says

    Gretchen: the phrase “modest proposal” should have tipped you off about how serious I am.

  34. maxamillion says

    Ed writes…

    The folks at the next table were absolutely average people, “hail fellows well-met” and their wives, the kind of people who hold the door for you at the grocery store, play bingo at the church down the block, cheer on the local high school football team and spoil their grandkids. All very nice people,…

    You make it sound like you live in Stepford

  35. birgerjohansson says

    A variant of the modest proposal would be to have the voters choose between voting, or sitting in Moe’s bar having free Duff Beer the entire voting day.

  36. says

    Gretchen: the phrase “modest proposal” should have tipped you off about how serious I am.

    I couldn’t see it through the fog of Poe surrounding your comment. It would’ve been easier if there had been an obvious point to saying such a thing satirically.

  37. savagemutt says

    Sometimes you have to put these things into the constitution to get them out of the reach of the legislature.

    But that also gets you what we ended up with in North Carolina. Despite gay marriage already being illegal here, conservatives wanted (and got) an amendment enshrining it in our constitution precisely so it would be more difficult to undo once our state becomes less bigoted.

  38. Reginald Selkirk says

    Not knowing the age of the earth no more makes you a baseline ignoramus than not knowing the number of electrons in Carbon.

    What does not knowing that carbon is defined by the number of protons, not the number of electrons, make you?
    .
    Getting back on topic, I voted. No ballot initiatives, just candidates.

  39. says

    What does not knowing that carbon is defined by the number of protons, not the number of electrons, make you?

    A good example of how ignorance of a scientific fact doesn’t make a person disqualified to have informed and valid political opinions. :-)

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