There have been many examples in History of various types of census for voters. The examples would include land ownership, income, age, gender, race, literacy, etc. Many of those have been detrimental to democracy, but is that true for all kinds of census?

A discussion appeared in the comments to another question whether it would be beneficial to have basic literacy + numeracy test for prospective voters.

Pro: The voice of reasonable people often drowns in the noise of unreasonable ones; restricting voting to those who can critically understand politicians' arguments and have basic understanding of economics and statistics may lead to better government. Voting in USA often includes direct democracy, such as voting for propositions in California and other states. Literacy level of voters may have direct effect on the laws. We already have written test for obtaining a driver's license because driving a motor vehicle implies responsibility. Why should we require less responsibility in development of the laws we live by?

Con: There has been a history in USA of using literacy tests to disenfranchise a part of the population. Wouldn't less literate portion of the population get disenfranchised again?

  • Did you read about Thailand? Those lunatics who want to abolish democracy can read (though I'm not saying that Yingluck's electors can't; literacy is high in Thailand). – iphigenie Jan 21 '14 at 10:15
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    "Improve" in what sense? – James Kingsbery Apr 30 '14 at 16:59
  • @JamesKingsbery: improve quality of decisions by electorate. In current US democracy only the only voices heard are of those who are capable of purchasing madia time for brainwashing unthinking majority into the decision contrary to that majority interests. It's even worse in Russia, where universal suffrage is combined with state-controlled media, which makes voices of people capable of independent thinking completely drowned in the chorus of TV-zombified sheep. – Michael May 1 '14 at 0:17
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    I think the statement that advertising is equivalent to "brainwashing [the] unthinking majority" is argumentative. Also, I don't think you've clarified what you mean, how do you measure the "quality of decisions made?" Are you assuming that whatever you think is always right? Who decides which decision is the "right" one? Who defines "quality?" How do you measure trade-offs in quality: for example, a particular law might trade-off between economic growth and providing people with more free time. Who decides which trade-off is the right one? – James Kingsbery May 1 '14 at 15:33

One of the problems with this line of thinking is asking who gets to pick the tests of having the right qualifications.

Consider the following example: during some of the American colonial uprisings, England banned all popular assemblies. What if instead they banned everyone except loyal Tories who properly understand the issues, who are reasonable people, and who have acted as if they understood English law. Quite clearly, such an assembly would no longer be representative of the people.

In general, if a government official could determine which people have the right kind of education, that seems like it is a critical single point of failure and vulnerable to misuse. Arguably (I wouldn't argue it!) that might be a good thing from a utilitarian point of view, but it doesn't seem to improve the self-determination that is fundamental to democracy.

  • Let's consider your example in a bit more detail. Did American colonies have universal suffrage? Not by a long shot, not for the next 150 years. At the time of American Revolution only a small minority had any say at all in the decision making, and that minority was far more educated than the rest of the country. As for determining qualifications, the test should not be determined by the current government, and should not include "proper understanding" of anything. The ability to think logically - that's what matters. Something basic, such as having IQ >= 100, would be enough. – Michael May 1 '14 at 0:39
  • Well, then you have the answer to your question: the removal of limits (from far off parliament, to only land-owning white men, ultimately to everyone over 18) seems to have been good for democracy. There's been no evidence offered here that adding limits back would improve it. – James Kingsbery May 1 '14 at 15:37

I believed that some census based on literacy may be a good thing, but now I understand it's not. The main reason for the change in my perspective was the observation, that a lot of people that would qualify as literate, are not making an effort to engage in any kind of socio-political activity. They don't participate in elections on national, or local scale, or even on community level. Those people can be effective citizens and make educated decisions about what policy is better, but they choose not to. The proper approach would be, not to restrict the voters that are unable to make educated decisions, but to incentify the ones who are educated and simply ignore politics. If they are educated they should be aware that if they do not vote, someone else would do it instead of them.

A friend put it like this: "Suddenly I realized that participation in political life is no less important than my health." I agree with him, and we should strive to make people realize that. I believe that placing a literacy census would cause more of the literate people not to vote, as they will trust that any of their peers would suffice to ensure the proper policy.

  • Perhaps the reason many intelligent people choose not to vote is because they know that the voices of the intelligent few will drown in the sea of uneducated voters, whose choices are swayed by slogan ads between TV soap operas. What's the point of voting that 2+2=4 when the candidate running on the platform 2+2=5 purchased Super Bowl ads where pretty girls with sexy voices sing that 2+2=5 and everyone who likes beer and football should know that? – Michael Jan 21 '14 at 16:52
  • That's not an excuse not to vote, but quite the opposite. Even if we assume the number of people who base their vote on commercials is naturally greater (which I doubt), neither group will have 100% activity. So if we say there are total of 100 people, and 60% are the "dummies". If the activity is on both sides is 50%, that will result is 30:20 votes. But if the activity on the "smart" side is 80%, the result will be 30:32. That should give you more incentive, because every vote counts. – Iliyan Bobev Jan 23 '14 at 22:54

I can't really see this as a philosophical question, I would think of it as purely political.

In any country there will be different kinds of people living together. Some people will, for whatever reasons, have enjoyed a less good education than others, with corresponding lower levels of literacy and numeracy. If this doesn't happen randomly but in some systematic way, then it might be that voting behaviour and literacy are correlated. Importantly, they are correlated: There is no reason to believe that lower literacy would lead to random voting behaviour, but it can lead to different voting behaviour. For example, someone with low literacy due to discrimination might want to vote against those responsible for discrimination and bad education for some groups, and for a party that might try to remove this injustice for future generations.

It is therefore very likely that someone who claims that literary and numeracy tests should be introduced to get more "correct" election results is lying and what they really want is to exclude people from elections because of their voting preferences. In other words, instead of the claim that they want to improve democracy, they want to damage or destroy it.

  • Imagine that you found yourself on a street in dire need of medical attention. A crowd is gathering around you, and a 25 people voice different opinions how to help you: 18 say you need to do A, and 7 say you need to do B. Out of those 25 people 5 happen to be doctors. Of those doctors 1 says that you need to do A and the other 4 say that the choice A would kill you, and you need to do B. What would be your choice: the majority opinion of all 25 bystanders, or the majority opinion of only the 5 doctors? – Michael Sep 15 '14 at 4:12
  • @Michael: The analogy fails in that issues going to vote don't have the same time-of-the-essence nature that a medical emergency does. If the mid-crisis time constraint is removed, then there's a major shift in the scenario: The medical professionals have info the average layperson doesn't, but now they can present evidence for Treatment B, show the dangers of Treatment A, or simply pronounce their opinion while flashing their credentials to back it up. When it comes time to vote, you probably don't have an 18-7 split anymore. – Dave B Sep 16 '14 at 17:44
  • @DaveB: There is an amazing amount of wishful thinking in the assertions of laypersons' rationality. Remove the assumption of time constraint in the above example, if you wish so. And, if you are familiar with History, recall how many times the general public imposed wrong decisions despite objections of educated minority, from the murder of Socrates to contemporary popularity of Hitler and Stalin and Putin... – Michael Sep 16 '14 at 22:22

If you want to limit the franchise to just a certain group of people who will "vote the right way", you might just as well discard democracy altogether and install a dictator.

  • Though we might, before dismissing that thought, think about whether there is a right and wrong in form and in substance. Because then we could differentiate between the form of voting the right way and the substance of voting the right way. Of course it contradicts democracy to limit suffrage to people that vote what you want them to vote for; but at the same time there's formal requirements for every election to count as democratic, like that the vote is free, confidential and equal. I'm just saying that, as I read the question, it is more about a formal restriction – iphigenie Jan 21 '14 at 10:57
  • that's supposed to favour the form of democracy while leaving the substance untouched. – iphigenie Jan 21 '14 at 11:07
  • The point of literacy census is not in making people vote the right way, the point is to make sure that they are capable of making their own intelligent decision how to vote. A dummy would vote the way TV commercials tells him to. Universal suffrage doesn't make the state more democratic: it enables those who control media exercise more control over the outcome. See also my comment to Iliyan's answer. – Michael Jan 21 '14 at 16:56

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