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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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October 21, 2011

The Force of Cluelessness

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Posted by Derek

I would like to heartily recommend the policy outlined in this post: that anyone advocating some political, economic, or social proposal should first be required to write a short essay explaining what the hell it is, and thus demonstrating that they have some minimal idea of what they're talking about. We will never see such a thing in this world, but a man can dream.

In an open forum, there is generally a good correlation between the passion with which some idea is advanced and the ignorance of the person advocating it. The comments section of any blog - this one not excepted - will demonstrate this to anyone with doubts. (That's also why I support this worthwhile initiative), one of many proposed by its parent web site. Yeats had it right: "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity."

And so it has always been. In the purview of this blog, for example, no one in my experience ever offers the tentative conclusion that the drug companies might possibly be an evil conspiracy to poison the public. No, that view is delivered with powerful conviction, accompanied by an equally strong belief that anyone who thinks differently is either a moron or a bought-and-paid-for tool.

Correcting for ignorance, were it possible, would change the world. I recall this insight hitting me with some force about 25 years ago. I was watching TV coverage of the House debating a bill that would have provided aid to the Nicaraguan contras. A graphic came up on the screen of a public opinion poll on the issue - this many people thought we should give them money, this many didn't. But then a follow-up question was shown, where they asked the same sample who these contras were. And an alarming number of people answered either "don't know" or thought that they were part of the Nicaraguan government forces, which made me realize that no weight whatsoever should have been given to the answers to that earlier question. If you don't know who the contras are, in other words, why should anyone care what you think should be done about them?

Allow me to wander off topic a bit - anyone who wants can bail out at this point; the rest of this post will be idle political speculation. OK, that line of thought leads one to several interesting conclusions about voting. I've long thought very much like this. I think that strenuous efforts to get people to vote are misguided - if someone is not motivated enough to get out and vote in an election, then society is better off if they do, in fact, stay home. And I'm not advocated some sort of closed-off elite; the doors are always wide open. There are thousands upon thousands of ways for someone to become more informed about any issue or any candidate, and if a person does not avail themselves of any of them, they have (in my view) disqualified themselves from voting.

That, though, leads us back to Yeats and that passionate intensity problem. Doesn't this mean that a lot of strongly motivated voters will, in fact, be ignorant? My solution to that, which I've been advocating since I was about seventeen, is for all voting booths to have two doors. The inner one can be the usual curtain. The outer one, though, presents the prospective voter with a few questions on general political and social knowledge, randomly selected from a larger pool. How often is your state's governor elected - every two years, every four, every six? Which of these names is the name of your state's other senator, the one who's not up for re-election this time? Who writes budget bills, the House or the Senate? That sort of thing. But if you can't get a majority of these high-school-civics questions right, the outer door does not open, and you must go home. When I'm in a bad mood, I toy with the idea of rigging up some sort of trap door system as well, but that's harder to implement.

Oh, I'm just full of improving ideas. I'd also like to see "None of the above" be an option on all ballots. What if NOTA wins? Well, new election in sixty days, and none of the previous candidates can run. It's been pointed out to me that had this system actually been in force that we might be behind by several presidential elections by this point, but I'm still not convinced if that's a bug or a feature. And another reform that's often occurred to me would probably only be possible in a much smaller country than the US. I could imagine, though, getting everyone in such a state together and asking which of them really, really wanted to be President. Whoever raises their hand is disqualified. There really should be some way to weed out candidates whose life's burning ambition is to Be In Charge. I'm reading The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius and Gibbon's Decline and Fall these days, and you can't help but think that the Roman Empire ran things the exact opposite way: the people who climbed to the top were the ones who were willing to make it the organizing principle of their entire lives. The same goes for any autocracy.

And in fact, just to drag things back by force to the usual topics of this site, it often goes for large companies. Recall this stuff - Tiberius would have nodded and smiled. And you didn't want to see what made him smile.

Comments (68) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. Alex on October 21, 2011 9:18 AM writes...

I would add another dimension to that: I consider myself to be a well informed and balanced person, but the first two times I voted in national elections I made what I subsequently realised were poor choices. I now attribute these to youthful naivety and an undeveloped tradeoff between the right amounts of idealism & cynicism.

So apart from the basic civics questions, I propose that the minimum voting age be raised to 30, and a _maximum_ voting age of 40 introduced.

Young people can't vote because they think they're way smarter than they really are, and also they typically don't have much invested in the status quo. Mature people have too many established interests and are too likely to vote in a crony-ish way, for whichever crook is likely to give them a boost at the expense of the public in general.

People in the middle of that range have, on average, a bit of both.

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2. Neil on October 21, 2011 9:27 AM writes...

Hang on, if the people without strongly held beliefs are more likely to be the rational ones, surely the people who DON'T go out to vote are the only ones whose votes should count?

One could cynically argue that anyone who (a) believes what politicians are promising enough to go and vote and (b) believes that their one vote out of millions makes a difference really shouldn't be trusted with it!

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3. Wile E. Coyote on October 21, 2011 9:30 AM writes...

It's a bad system, but the best one that we have, to paraphrase Churchill. The issue with setting limits based on "education", "intelligence", "smarts", or whatever the questions presented are supposed to sort out prior to being allowed to vote (Derek's door before the curtain)is: Who gets to decide the questions to ask? Doesn't this setup the system for an elitist, central planning plutocracy? Maybe not in the first election or two, but a generation down the road? This to me is scary 1984 type stuff. If a person isn't treated as equal under the law for voting, then what other rights could be taken away capriciously? I think we saw some of that in the late 30's and early 40's last century. What if you, Derek, got the fluke question on your doorway quiz that you couldn't answer? I'd be pissed as hell for being disenfranchised. Lots of rhertorical questions here that I just want to be thought about; I'm not looking for answers. My bottom line: you can't protect a political system against stupidity.

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4. bbooooooya on October 21, 2011 9:34 AM writes...

Sounds like a nice idea, actually understanding what/who it is you're voting for, and one I actually agree with.

Didn't something like this get tried in the south pre-1965 or so? How's that work out?

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5. lynn on October 21, 2011 9:34 AM writes...

I gather that we don't agree politically, Derek, but I have often thought along the same lines as you about the double-door voting booth.

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6. CatCube on October 21, 2011 9:35 AM writes...

...willing to make it the organizing principle of their entire lives.

This doesn't just go for autocrats. It's alive and well in the US today. Think about what a presidential candidate has to go through, especially these days in a 24 hour news cycle. It's basically a public proctological exam. President Obama has to contend with people screeching about how he's secretly a Muslim, President Bush had all the chimp comparisons, and his daughters getting nailed for underage drinking was a worldwide news story.

And this is just people who have a problem with the particular occupant. There is also the howling-at-the-moon insanity that the Presidency attracts. During President Clinton's tenure, a dude wanted to kill himself, and drove to a hotel in West Virginia to do the deed. However, he missed his exit, and decided to drive on into Washington, D.C., and kill the President instead. He sat on a park bench for a few days by President Clinton's daily run route before seeing a newspaper and realizing the President was in Russia that week. He then called the thing off, went back home and told his neighbor this story.

All of this is a part of being the president today. Nobody, of any party, whether Republican, Democrat, Communist, Libertarian, American Nazi, People Who Know Nothing, etc, will become president unless they want power so bad that they can taste it.

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7. ZZ on October 21, 2011 9:37 AM writes...

Interesting thoughts about election systems, but my opinion is that it is pointless. The representatives never represent the voters anyway, they are bought and fully paid for by "campaign contributors".

With today's technology there is really no need for representatives anyway. Full democracy could be implemented using the internet. Every issue can be put up for vote by all citizens -- that would make corruption (sorry I should call it lobbying to be PC) nearly impossible. On the voting web page, you could also implement the qualification questions to filter for eligibility based on knowledge of the actual topic to be voted on. I.e. the questions would be different for each bill.

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8. wave124 on October 21, 2011 9:38 AM writes...

It looks like 60 Minutes has a replacement for Andy Rooney.

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9. Hap on October 21, 2011 9:42 AM writes...

I think it's a good idea to ask oneself those kind of questions, but as a policy, to exclude people from voting because they don't know what they're doing seems problematic because the policies we vote on apply to everyone, whether or not he votes. The legitimacy of our form of government rests on the ability of all to have a stake in choosing the policies that they will be subject to - once only a few have the ability to vote on those policies, the shenanigans likely to come from that will probably not be good.

In addition, no one seems to require such deliberation from the people who make the laws.

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10. Hap on October 21, 2011 9:45 AM writes...

"Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups."

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11. PharmaHeretic on October 21, 2011 9:46 AM writes...

Many people don't trust pharma for a few reasons-

1. Companies exist to make profit, for a few, by any means necessary and laws to control the worse aspects of corporate behavior have been rendered toothless during the last 20-30 odd years. While the above mentioned phenomena is not restricted to any sector, the ill-will from one sector bleeds into another.

2. Heavily promoted drugs of questionable therapeutic value such as such as COX-2 inhibitors, atypical anti-psychotics and cholesterol lowering drugs other than statins have made the public skeptical of both doctors and pharma.

3. Doctors in many developed countries are increasingly seen as greedy, paternalistic, dishonest and often less than competent professionals indulging in mafia-cartel type behavior. Since most drugs are prescribed by doctors, it is not hard to imagine that their negative halo rubs on to things associated with them.

4. Many of the newer and most heavily promoted drugs offer little to no clear advance over older ones. For example- newer drugs to treat Hepatitis C are real advances, but yet another serotonin-noradrenaline uptake inhibitor to treat atypical depression is not.

5. Many of the newer drugs offer poor value for money and people feel ripped off and abused. Once again- a new Hepatitis C drug which costs a few thousand dollar per patient is still OK because it can stop far more expensive complications down the line. On the other hand- dropping 90k for a new anti-cancer drug which 'might' extend your survival by 1 month is not.

While there will always be a core vocal group that does not trust pharma, many who are in that growing category today have good reasons to be so.

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12. luysii on October 21, 2011 9:52 AM writes...

Exactly -- It's why I prefer to blog anonymously.

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13. Derek Lowe on October 21, 2011 10:04 AM writes...

#3 Wile - you're probably right that stupidity will find a way; it certainly has throughout recorded history. But to come to the defense of my double-door plan, I always envisioned it as having a dozen questions or so, to keep from being fluked out by any particular one. Six out of twelve as the cutoff, maybe? Seven? But yes, as you mention, this really just kicks the can down the road a bit when you get to what questions should be allowed, and who gets to allow them. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? We still don't have an answer to that one.

#4 boo - Every time I mention this idea, I can usually count the seconds (as if I'm waiting for thunder) before someone brings up Jim Crow voting practices. Glad you could fill in this time. I freely admit to discriminating against the willfully uninformed.

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14. SP on October 21, 2011 10:18 AM writes...

"I can usually count the seconds (as if I'm waiting for thunder) before someone brings up Jim Crow voting practices."
Gee, maybe there's a reason for that. Given the current efforts of one political party to restrict voting access by setting up criteria that, gee shucks, just happen to disproportionately affect groups of people who vote for the other political party, I'm pretty certain that restrictions like you describe will be manipulated for political gain. Whether that motivation is racial like it was 50 years ago or economic like it is today doesn't really matter- if you have a system to restrict voting, people in power are going to use it to enhance their power.

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15. barry on October 21, 2011 10:27 AM writes...

An ignorant electorate can't be expected to guide a democracy wisely, but not all of it is willful. We (well, about half of us) voted in a presidential election in 2004 without knowing that the candidate for one major political party was and had been running a major criminal enterprise, spying on citizens. Only in 2005 did the New York Times break the story of warrantless wiretaps; Dick Cheney had persuaded Bill Keller to suppress it, although he had had the story before the election of '04.
Had that election been contested against a backdrop of impeachment hearings, the outcome might have been quite different. Or not--the Pentagon Papers came out in '71 and didn't stop Nixon's re-election in '72

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16. Graduate Student on October 21, 2011 10:31 AM writes...

The civics quiz seems like a good idea on the surface, but if you think more deeply about it sounds dangerously like the literacy tests given at a much worse time in our country's history. They're not the same, but I think it would probably have the same net effect. And declaring every uninformed person willfully ignorant ignores a lot of structural factors that, despite many well-intentioned efforts (of varying efficacy) undertaken over the years still play a pretty important role in who is well educated and who isn't.

That said, voting is not exactly a good way to make decisions anyway, so I'm not even sure more informed voters would matter. The same sorts of people would still think that they should have political power, and those are universally the sorts of people who cannot be trusted with it. I have long advocated that we replace elections with Thunderdome. We wouldn't get better leaders, but some folks who probably deserved it would die.

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17. Nate on October 21, 2011 10:39 AM writes...

What if instead we changed the voting system such that each candidate fills out a form that says what they are going to do while in office. Then the ballot is worded such that people vote for what they feel should be the solution to a questions and then the rank questions by personal importance.

should we raise taxes to pay for better school systems. (Yes by 10%) (yes by 5%) (yes by 2%) (no) (no reduce funds to schools).

How important is this topic to you (1-not at all to 10-most important)

Then your answers are compared to the officials being elected and your vote goes to whichever one your answers are closest to.

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18. NoDrugsNoJobs on October 21, 2011 10:42 AM writes...

I remember the first time I went to vote, I walked up to the table and had my Driver's License out, assuming that one would have to produce at least some kind of ID to make sure people didn't fill in and vote for others who didn't show up - they laughed at me and told me the ID wasn't necessary, I couldn't believe it. Getting a video from blockbuster or a book from the library requires more than what you need to vote. I think if we cannot even ask for proof of identification lest we be racist or whatever, any sort of civics quiz would be way out of the realm.

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19. pete on October 21, 2011 10:58 AM writes...

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity." - Yeats

In the context of US Presidential candidates, I don't think the 'best' lack conviction. Quite the opposite. Many of the best wouldn't touch the requisite personal sacrifice (given our current state of political dysfunction) with a 10-foot pole. That's a depressing thought.

As for the double-door, in an ideal world, isn't that what the 'doors' from Middle School ==> High School ==> graduation should do?

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20. MattF on October 21, 2011 11:06 AM writes...

Certainly, those who are the most vocal have the strongest opinions-- but the basic paradox in a democracy is that close elections are decided by the group of people who can't make up their minds. Which... at least arguably... is a plausible way of doing things.

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21. SP on October 21, 2011 11:14 AM writes...

"Getting a video from blockbuster or a book from the library requires more than what you need to vote"
Oh, that must be the lesser known third and a quarter amendment, the part where people's right to rent movies shall not be infringed. ~11% of adult citizens do not have government issued ID and there are almost no cases of people voting under someone else's name (those that have been reported are things like a spouse voting for their partner because the person couldn't make it to the polls).

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22. MTK on October 21, 2011 11:27 AM writes...

I didn't read the original article (ironic, huh?), but I think I'm getting the gist.

I'll go contrarian just for the sake of argument and say that the ignorant voting is fine. Since they don't know what the heck they're doing, they'll probably fall 50:50. This then continues the illusion that their vote is just as important as anyone else's therefore not disenfranchising them. The result then will come down to the more informed.

Do I really believe that? Maybe.

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23. Athenian on October 21, 2011 11:39 AM writes...

We should set some kind of threshold for who can hold office (age, civics proficiency, etc.), and then we should just randomly select people from that population to be our politicians - kind of like it's jury duty. This would be the most democratic and fair way to run things.

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24. NoDrugsNoJobs on October 21, 2011 11:47 AM writes...

SP - which amendment dictates that ID cannot be required for voting, I must have missed that one. With regard to requiring ID at local libraries, there is a right of free speech and by proxy, a right to read what others have written. Libraries are public institutions so the amendments do apply to them so maybe I am missing something here but afraid I am not. But, if you say that others do not vote for people that don't show up then I guess vote fraud isn't an issue after all. Thanks for clearing that up, I feel much better now.

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25. SP on October 21, 2011 12:02 PM writes...

No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

You can not make a law that indirectly provide unequal protection of the law, which includes requiring ID when such a requirement disproportionately affects a "suspect class"
Anyone is allowed to enter a library and access their materials, no ID required.
As for preventing voter fraud, I think you're agreeing with me that it's a solution in search of a problem.

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26. bbooooooya on October 21, 2011 12:04 PM writes...

"I freely admit to discriminating against the willfully uninformed."

Which I agree with. Just implementation is the tricky part.....

My hope is that the votes of the thundering masses of stupid cancel each other out like so many random waves. That ppl like Louis Gomert and Michelle Bachman get elected to congress, however, suggests that this is also fallible.

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27. Hap on October 21, 2011 12:09 PM writes...

Jim Crow is not an unreasonable example because people use control of voting as a proxy for controlling the governnment (and depending on the area, the economic order as well) - it was certainly used as such in that case. People also phrase such restrictions as being in the good of all (or the people being deprived of the ability to vote), but generally it doesn't work that way (Jim Crow didn't work out well for the black people being "protected", for example).

Another inconsistency is that in even more important responsibilities, we don't require intelligence. You don't have to pass a test to use money for example, and you don't have to have a (good) reason to buy something - you simply have to have the money (yours or someone else's). You are also held responsible for the consequences - whether you are smart or stupid, knowledgeable or not, or lucky or not, doesn't matter. If we are willing to uphold the consequences and outcomes of people's handling of money, with not much (bankruptcy, hospital admission) mitigation, I don't see why people should be excluded from voting for intelligence (or the willingness to use intelligence).

NDNJ - ID checks are in theory OK, but there is a long and ignoble tradition of trying to keep people from voting of which ID checking has a position. Given history, it is not reasonable to assume that ID checking is simply intended to prevent voter fraud.

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28. Rich Rostrom on October 21, 2011 12:14 PM writes...

There are a couple of different issues here.

The obvious one is the "Rational ignorance" problem.

As an average citizen, I am unlikely to be affected in any significant way by the actions of a particular officeholder. Or to be precise, it is unlikely that the difference between the probable actions of two candidates for an office will affect me personally.

But to become fully informed about the two candidates and the issues their actions might affect could take a fair amount of my time; and in many cases my vote is unlikely to affect the selection of the officeholder.

In most of the U.S., voters have too many offices to vote for. (Illinois: U.S. Senator & Representative, Governor, Sec of State, Attorney General, Treasurer, Comptroller, Supreme Court Justice, State Senator & Representative, County Board President, Sheriff, Assessor, Treasurer, Clerk, Circuit Court Clerk, Recorder, County Commissioner, Tax Appeal Commissioners, and dozens of judges.)

The "rational" response to this is to ignore the election. Or to delegate the voting choice to a better-informed advisor - a newspaper, advocacy group, or political party - and vote that advisor's line.

The institutional answer to this might be to formalize such delegation: perhaps by giving the ordinary citizen not a vote, but a proxy he can give to his selected agent, who will do all the hard stuff. (Feedback is hard though - how would you know if your delegate sells out or does something stupid? If his votes are public, that kills the secret ballot.)

"Direct democracy" is no answer. Even full-time legislators can't keep up with the all the information about thousands of appropriations and bills. Asking the citizenry at large to do it is absurd - it multiplies the rational ignorance problem a thousandfold.

As to the problem of intensity correlating with ignorance: I think it is clear that the more one knows, the more one realizes one doesn't know - which instills a cautiousness and reluctance to act precipitately.

The world's full of people who learn one thing and get all excited about it.

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29. Morten G on October 21, 2011 12:24 PM writes...

Direct democracy sounds like a great idea - if you want the country to be as bankrupt as California.

Double doors are not a bad idea but you should institute them in congress instead. You can not vote on a bill you don't understand. Bills fall with too few votes.

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30. HelicalZz on October 21, 2011 12:41 PM writes...

Its odd, but I have always considered it my civic responsibility to vote. Not always though, my responsibility to be adequately informed on all issues and offices. Like Derek though, I had a watershed moment when discussing voting with a friend and fellow Italian, he noted that he votes 'for people whose names end in vowels'. Arrrggghhhhh. I had been leaving those empty.

Now, in many instances, I write in my own name. I do this quite often. Should we ever reach a level of severe indifference in this country, you can look forward to me being your leader. : )


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31. NoDrugsNoJobs on October 21, 2011 12:51 PM writes...

SP - I thought voter ID laws have been challenged and have in fact been found constitutional. I recall a law in Illinois or Indiana being challenged because it required state issued Id and it made its way to the US S Ct. and the law was upheld but from what you are saying, that is not the case. I must be one of the folks thats too dumb to vote under rderek's hypothetical. Thanks for the civics lesson, looks like I need a brush up. Though I must say that since the laws are uncostitutional, why worry so much about them being passes givewn they will be stricken anyway. cheers, I'm out of here...

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32. Cellbio on October 21, 2011 1:15 PM writes...

Yikes, really?

So, if someone doesn't know the term of their Governator, or the name of the Senator not up for re-election, they are forbidden from voting at all? Someone who believes a particular candidate will work in their interest, advocate on their behalf needs to know civics before they can vote in a manner that they believe will have their voice represented?

Instead of your way Derek, how about I just make all the decisions because I know I am properly informed and have the right answers. Save everyone a lot of time.

Funny though, this system might keep Palin out of the voting booth.

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33. Derek Lowe on October 21, 2011 1:20 PM writes...

#32 Cellbio - I picked civics questions as a proxy for being reasonably well-informed about politics and government, but I'd be glad to substitute basic economics, geography, history and so on. That, of course, puts us right back into the swamp which makes this idea unrealizable: who gets to pick the questions?

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34. DH on October 21, 2011 1:59 PM writes...

"There really should be some way to weed out candidates whose life's burning ambition is to Be In Charge."

Agreed. The way to do it is to drastically limit the power of the position. If the President's highest responsibility was to hand out commemorative medals and attend shopping mall openings, this would chase the power-lusters away.

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35. billswift on October 21, 2011 3:02 PM writes...

And if NOTA wins twice in a row, eliminate the position.

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36. matt on October 21, 2011 4:17 PM writes...

The more I read this, the more I'm happy to live with the system we have.

"I freely admit to discriminating against the willfully uninformed."

One problem: if that percentage of society gets large enough, you can't have a legitimate democracy without them. If, as you say, ignorance correlates to passion, then you have a real, violent problem.

Occasionally, I feel as you do, but then I get one of those survey phone calls asking me about all the judges on the next ballot.
"How favorable would you say you feel about Mike Smith?"

[Of course, some of that frustration stems from a lack of local news reporting where I used to live. The only way to find out about the candidates would be to hang around the courthouse for a while, or try to find some local legal blog. Even better, for one of the state-wide judges, a fellow judge on the same court FROM the SAME PARTY was recommending his opponent because he said the judge was a lazy no-show. And, in fact, the judge had written substantially fewer decisions than any of the other members of the court. But he was voted back in because of his party affiliation.]

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37. bbooooooya on October 21, 2011 5:24 PM writes...

"you can't have a legitimate democracy without them"

No problem: the US is a republic, not a democracy.

The whole reason behind the senate was to make it more difficult for the unwashed masses to steer the ship of state.

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38. gippgig on October 21, 2011 7:31 PM writes...

Abolish nations.

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39. Sisyphus on October 21, 2011 7:53 PM writes...

I always thought that if a person does not pay income tax or accepts hand-outs from the government (pay, welfare, etc.), then he should not be allowed to vote.

"When the people find they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic."
Ben Franklin

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40. alig on October 21, 2011 8:43 PM writes...

The only question that should be asked before being allowed to vote is "who currently holds this position". If you can't name the incumbent, no vote for you.

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41. Cellbio on October 21, 2011 8:49 PM writes...

Well I do wish the voting public were reasonably informed, so I get your frustration Derek.

Bigger problem these days is the candidates themselves are not reasonably informed. I suppose the tow go hand-in-hand.

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42. hn on October 21, 2011 10:01 PM writes...

Foreigners have to pass an exam to be a US citizen. I don't think it's too much to ask that native born citizens be held to the same minimal standard to vote.

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43. BigSky on October 21, 2011 10:24 PM writes...

The thought exercise doesn't have to stop at VOTER qualifications...I've had similar fantasies myself but by my second dram I'm usually wondering why I'm forced to choose between candidates who couldn't carry the water for the average Pipeline reader. Seriously. Have you watched the candidate debates over the last few weeks? Is that really the best and the brightest that side of the aisle can offer?

I wish I could affirmatively punch the chad for a candidate who I believed was probably more intelligent, thoughtful and empathetic than I am. A real policy wonk who I believed would stand for well described ideals and with the personal convictions to adhere to those in the face of corporate lobbying. I haven't felt that for a looong time at the county, state or federal level.

Sisyphus @ #39 GE and any number of their highly profitable peers don't pay any income tax and get ginormous hand-outs from the government. And they don't suffer a whit from the disadvantage of not voting (at the booth). They have found it's much simpler and economical to buy their favors. Franklin is dizzy.

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44. Maverick on October 21, 2011 11:35 PM writes...

Rather than excluding ignorant voters, we should make sure voters aren't ignorant.

Modifying your "double-door" idea: we should provide the basic information on government, the electoral process, and the candidates to the voters, who must answer a short, random series of questions on the material provided (ex."What role does each branch of government have in passing a law?" or "Is Candidate A Pro-Choice?"). The voter doesn't have access to the information during testing, but if the voter fails the test he/she can review the materials and retake the test (and repeat this process as many times as necessary).

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45. provocateur on October 22, 2011 10:25 AM writes...

For all your excuses in not being one, you are one of the elites.Your call that ppl should have knowledge of certain things that you consider important is itself elitist in itself.In our own personal lives and relationships we don't make logical/knowledgable/scientific/rational decisions.Propaganda and impressions/perceptions about candidates always will be the major driving forces in politics(and life).In your system, the ppl who are turned back from the voting booth for not knowing stuff that you consider u think they are going to sit silent.Democracy is a popularity contest and by giving a vote to each person you basically say that you deserve what you vote for...It may not be perfect but get used to being real.Destinies are not accept and deal with them.Very disappointed that this kind of thought came from such a level headed guy i like a lot.

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46. provocateur'S WIFE on October 22, 2011 12:05 PM writes...

The concept of maya(which I used to ridicule) is especially relavant.The things that we can control is but perception...would you hold the market makers
to the same stds...only the low class voter..because he does not know what you think he should..This is your perception

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47. Anonymous on October 22, 2011 12:37 PM writes...

"if someone is not motivated enough to get out and vote in an election, then society is better off if they do, in fact, stay home"

Just one small step from here to Heinlein

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48. El Selectride on October 22, 2011 1:00 PM writes...

Who had that line about the people getting "the government they deserve"? Tocqueville? Jefferson? Either way, it applies, and the McArdle filter was especially helpful for the comments on this post.

Reading Gibbon is bad for you--for months afterward, I found that my subsequent writing had become infected with circuitous verbiage.

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49. IdiotProliferation on October 22, 2011 1:29 PM writes...

I agree with Derek on this point. It's not an intellegence screen but rather a filter based on only counting the votes of those who actually understand what they are voting for. Otherwise the candidate with the nicest teeth and most money usually wins. I would like to advocate a similar policy for procreation. The default position being that everyone is on birth control until they have passed a parenthood test - can you financially and emotionally support offspring, are you in a stable long term relationship that can provide adequate nuturing- kind of like acheiving an acceptable credit rating before qualifying for a car loan.

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50. HappyDog on October 22, 2011 2:13 PM writes...

Some of this discussion is making me shudder a bit. I grew up in Alabama and am quite familiar with the old Jim Crow laws. A lot of these suggestions are in direct violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the 15th Amendment of the US Constitution. Congress essentially wanted to ban the practice of Southern states where literacy tests were used as a requirement to establish whether someone was eligible to vote. These laws, of course, were directed mainly at African Americans, who had fewer educational opportunities than whites in the South, and hence, a lower literacy rate. The problem is that whoever is in power could use these tests to exclude whatever group of people they don't want from voting. Even seemingly simple things could get twisted around. As an example, some of you have suggested a test based on knowledge of current events or civics. Imagine a Secretary of State putting questions on the test like "Who was the mastermind of 9/11?". Most people would answer Bin Laden. But, what if some wacko Secretary of State decided that the correct answer was President George Bush? Oops, sorry. No Republicans are eligible to vote. Voting tests are easily abused, so Congress made them unconstitutional, then doubled down on that with the Voting Rights Act, which has been renewed four times since and subsequently upheld in the courts for a very good reason.

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51. HappyDog on October 22, 2011 2:28 PM writes...

49. IdiotProliferation

Are you proliferating your idiocy? Regarding your proposed procreation laws, the government doesn't decide what your credit should be before you apply for an auto loan. For that matter, I know people with crap credit who bought a new car for cash. Who would draw up the criteria for procreation? Conservative Christians? Government Bureaucrats? The court system? A blue-ribbon panel of academics? You? In my experience, people like yourself who suggest restrictions on other people's freedoms are more than happy as long as they're the ones calling the shots. If they're on the receiving end, however, they squeal like a stuck pig about how their rights were infringed. How about punishments for violating this Idiot's Proliferation laws? Anyone want to chime in? How about fines? Mandatory abortions? The state taking away their children? Loss of tax deductions? In order to have any teeth, any penalty you enforce would end up with us looking more like Communist China or Soviet Russia.

I can't for the life of me understand why all of you supposedly highly educated folks don't understand some of the most basic principles that our country was built on. If anyone's rights are infringed, all of our rights are diminished. Most of the comments here are about restricting this group's or that group's freedoms, without any of you having to give anything up. And all so that you can get what you feel is a better advantage over your fellow citizens because YOU think they're too stupid, uneducated, or belong to the wrong political party or ethnic group. It's because of crap like this that the reconstruction amendments were passed in the first place.

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52. HappyDog on October 22, 2011 2:36 PM writes...

Although . . .

Writing that last comment made me think that perhaps I'm approaching this all wrong. Maybe we COULD use some sort of civics test. How about something along the lines of: You can only vote if you know what the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution are?

(For those of you who don't know them off the top of your head, yes, I'm being sarcastic. Now please go look them up.)

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53. provocateur on October 22, 2011 4:35 PM writes...

Thanks , HappyDog for putting my thoughts so succinctly in your 2nd paragraph in #51.

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54. Twelve on October 22, 2011 7:28 PM writes...


So the big bankers wouldn't be allowed to vote. Most farmers either. Works for me.

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55. Fake Name on October 22, 2011 10:35 PM writes...

With so many comments I have slim hope that mine will be seen much less being responded to. I too found the MR post DL linked too (and the post article linked to therein) quite thought provoking. My thoughts are in line to that if Athenian in comment #23. That said here is my modest proposal.

1. Presidential elections -- Every 4 years X number of people will be selected at random to vote. They will be selected after just after the previous election so that they have 4 years to educate themselves and evaluate thoroughly the direction of the nation. Their names would be made public so that once they have voted they are accountable for their choice to the non-voting public. I am split as to whether their votes should be made public or not. X can be selected either nationwide or be apportioned (in some fashion) among the 50 states (+ DC)

2. Congressional elections. Same as above except for a 6 year cycle (to co-ordinate the 2-yr house tenure and the 6-re Senate tenure). And the selection is done statewide. Lets call this population Y.

3. People who are in X cannot be in Y.

4. X and Y should be very small compared to the national and state populations respectively. E.g. X = 5000. Y = 100

As for voting being a civic duty, in my opinion the highest form of civic duty is serving in the jury and it is a shame that people make fun of jury duty while treating voting so sacredly.

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56. bad wolf on October 23, 2011 10:28 AM writes...

@55 you have a point at the end there: i am now on a grand jury and getting pulled downtown once a month has made me more aware of many civic duties.

it is crazy to me that showing ID to vote is some insurmountable racist problem. if people aren't involved in the system enough to have ID, why are they voting? similarly (and i hate to mention it in times of extended unemployment) but comedian Adam Carolla suggested showing a recent paystub as well to demonstrate you're contributing to the system.

my #1 target: people thinking that foreign aid is some huge majority of federal spending. if no one knows what we're spending money on, how do they vote to rationally fix it?

i am sure we'd all like to think the voting masses are well- or better-informed, and generally i agree with hn#42, that we should be at least as knowledgeable as a person who's earned citizenship. i do realize that that actually won't make anyone agree with me more often. i can only hope that the current voting methods make people feel more responsible for the outcomes. but history suggests that instead we wash our hands of the candidates pretty much immediately.

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57. Anthony on October 23, 2011 10:51 AM writes...

Rich @#28: The institutional answer to this might be to formalize such delegation: perhaps by giving the ordinary citizen not a vote, but a proxy he can give to his selected agent, who will do all the hard stuff. (Feedback is hard though - how would you know if your delegate sells out or does something stupid? If his votes are public, that kills the secret ballot.)

You realize you've just described representative democracy, don't you?

Not exactly - what we have is a system where arbitrarily defined groups of people decide which one person will be their selected agent. It might be interesting to change this to allow any voter to sign a proxy card authorizing such and such a person to cast their votes in the legislature; each legislator would cast as many votes as they have active proxy cards. Perhaps a minimum number of proxies would be required to allow admittance to the voting, so that the size of the legislative body doesn't get too unweildy - one could either just disregard those proxies, allow a person to assign their proxy with a list of people to whom it should be transferred, or allow the proxy-holder to assign all his proxy votes to someone who does have enough votes to be seated.

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58. Anthony on October 23, 2011 11:00 AM writes...

One of the larger formal injustices of the various Jim Crow voting rules was that they were applied to blacks and whites unequally.

You've all heard of "being grandfathered in", or the "grandfather rule", but how many of you know where it came from?

After the 15th Amendment came into force, Southern states limited black voting by placing literacy requirements on the vote, while specifically exempting most whites by allowing the vote to anyone whose grandfather was allowed to vote. Had the literacy and/or property requirements been enforced equally, large numbers of whites would have been disfranchised as well.

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59. Anthony on October 23, 2011 11:15 AM writes...

Comparing voting to making purchases, contracting debt, or having children misses an essential difference between those acts and voting: voting is the exercise of power over one's fellow citizens. Another difference is that people are far more insulated from the consequences of voting than they are from any other decisions they may make in ignorance.

So I don't see anything morally wrong with limiting eligibility to vote on various neutral and justifiable criteria, even if they have disparate impacts on different population groups.

The first limitation I'd like would start with Sisyphus @39. The IRS would calculate for each person how much of the income they received came from the government, and how much they paid in taxes; if the taxes paid are greater than the givernment income, they're eligible to vote.

However, since quite a lot of government spending is funneled through contractors, I'd have the IRS calculate for each employer how much of their gross revenue is from the government, and consider income (wages, salaries, bonuses, dividends) from those corporations to be government income in the same proportion as the company's gross revenues are received from government. So if I work for HAL Corporation, which gets 75% of its gross revenue from the government, 75% of my income from them counts as income from the government.

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60. Jonadab on October 23, 2011 11:35 AM writes...

I believe I'd vote in favor of your two-doors civics-quiz voting system, but I'm not really passionate about it.

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61. bluebaron on October 23, 2011 12:34 PM writes...

I don't really have a problem with voters. That's the nature of democracy; we run things in our interests, no matter how misguided.

The real problem is how misguided things are. Our politicians are dependent on a diet of soft and hard contributions from special interests. It is no surprise that people giving lots of money get more sway, and even the most honorable pol will be influenced by his money stream. Our politicians will be forced into a gauntlet of satisfying donors and satisfying party lines for endorsements. Therefore, we always feel we have the same crappy choices, and I'd venture that most people wouldn't give a rat's ass if they actually read up and understood what each candidate was offering. Look at the "range" or presidential choices: One democrat, or several Republicans who are trying to be the same single conservative.

Pols spend have their time soliciting donations, essentially a sales job. They are on the phone hours a day asking for money and listening to what the big donors have to say. What we want them to do is articulate their philosophy, get attuned to the issues of the day, and make decisions in the country's interest. We want them working for us as a job, not spending half their time doing another job so they can keep their current position.

We should really be concerned about efficiency and incentives here. If we want our pols and candidates to stay focused on the issues and remain uncompromised, we need to implement public financing in sufficient amounts that any candidate can run an effective campaign having only the US people as a special interest. For the billions spent on campaigns and lobbying, it's a drop in the bucket compared to the money we spend as a country. 1% of our budget, even balanced would be $20 billion, more than enough for all of our national elections. There's no reason not to spend some money to assure that the rest is well-spent. Most people pay more for their financial assets to be managed.

We want our leaders to be effective while being free of special interests and party tests that determine funding.

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62. Charles on October 23, 2011 10:33 PM writes...

So in summary:

1) Most voters are not smart enough to vote.
2) There is nothing that can be done about number 1 and still live in a democracy.
3) Money corrupts politics.
4) Nothing will be done about number 3, unless Citizens United is overturned, and even then it is doubtful.
5) Citizen owned (the Chapel Hill term for public financing) elections would fix a lot of the problems but at a significant cost.
6) The current crop of congress critters do not want to fix number 5.
7) The public (the above not so smart voters) do not seem to want to spend public money to get rid of some of the big money corruption of number 5.

Personally I vote for the least data challenged person running. Lately that means the GOP has not seen my vote in a long time. If I refused to vote for any of the data challenged I would just stay home.

If you want to see how badly the passionate voters are data challenged, go to and look at the comments for any article about vaccines, global warming or energy conservation.

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63. HappyDog on October 24, 2011 10:06 AM writes...

55. Fake Name

The issue I have with your modest proposal is that our bicameral legislature was set up the way it was for a reason. The framers wanted the Representatives to serve two-year terms in order to make them more sensitive to the will of the electorate. On the other hand, the six year terms of the Senators was designed so that the Senate wouldn't be carried away by popular sentiment. This last point was overridden somewhat upon passage of the 17th Amendment, which provided for the direct election of Senators. Until that time, Senators were selected by the state legislatures. The idea was that because the States were subject to the Federal Government, having the Senators be responsible to the State governments rather than the popular vote would place some controls on the power of a strong Federal Government. Now that balance has been upset, and Congress often dictates to the States.

What a lot of people here seem to ignore is that the decision not to vote is, in and of itself, a decision as well. We bemoan that elections may only approach 50% of the voting public turning out, but these are the ones who care about the process. Why should people who don't even care about elections get a vote? It's often said that in a democracy the people get the government they deserve. If you don't turn out to vote, then you don't have any right to complain about the result.

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64. HappyDog on October 24, 2011 10:16 AM writes...

58. Anthony

Your point about Jim Crow is factually incorrect. The problem wasn't that they were applied unequally to blacks and white. The entire point of Jim Crow was specifically to prevent blacks from voting in the South post-reconstruction.

Another thing that always galls me about these conversations is that there are always people who think that they can set up a better system, and they're the only ones smart enough to figure out how to make it work. Doesn't it bother any of you that since at least ~360 BC when Plato wrote The Republic, that no one has managed to make a Utopia work?

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65. CET on October 24, 2011 11:51 AM writes...

Derek - I agree with you in principle, but I think the idea ends up being fundamentally flawed because basic factual civics questions (term limits, current office holders, etc) won't be an accurate way to identify the tinfoil-hat crowd. Though I could be convinced by a large enough study that shows a significant correlation.

The thing that makes them crazy isn't that they don't know what the term limit is for senator, it's the almost religious devotion to a different narrative of the country's history. If someone believed that FDR's new deal was a communist plot to destroy America, and that it dragged out the depression for years longer than it would have if we had just let the lazy poor starve in the streets, I would consider that person crazy, but I can think of no objective way to disprove their narrative.

I think that for the questions to be useful, they would likely have to be somewhat political (ruling out people who think that the US blew up the towers, people who think that the invisible hand is some kind of magical panacea, etc). And at that point, well . . . the discussion has already gone there.

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66. bad wolf on October 24, 2011 4:06 PM writes...

As hn#42 pointed out, there already is a system of questions in place that is considered fair enough by both parties--or at least not a re-imposition of Jim Crow--the same civics test applied to foreigners seeking US citizenship. If you want as informed a population of natives, then institute the same test as part of voter registration.

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67. Vader on October 25, 2011 12:05 PM writes...

I kind of like the town hall system. You have to be motivated enough to come out to the town meeting, and you have to be willing to hear the presentations, and subsequent discussion, on the issues or candidates you'll be voting on.

Throw in a rule that anyone who starts shouting will be taken out (and anyone who throws a punch will be taken out and shot) and you've got the makings of a pretty good system, I think.

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68. Anonymous on October 26, 2011 1:46 PM writes...

I grew up in the South as well but managed to deprogram myself from this kind of racist garbage by my twenties. I hope someday you do too.

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