Years ago, after the 1991 Nevada Legislature created a new business tax, the television newsroom, where I then worked, received a call from the owner of a miniature golf course who was aggrieved by it. I went out with a photographer to shoot an interview with him.
It turned out that he had only just found out about the new tax when the notices had gone out to the state’s businesses of the payments expected of them. That took me by surprise. How, I asked him, could he not have known of a tax that had been heavily covered in the news more or less daily for four or five months during the immediate past session of the Nevada Legislature?
I frankly don’t remember his answer, but I’m not sure it matters. Not only was the proposed tax hike widely publicized, but businesses had received appeals for their support from chambers of commerce, business lobbies and other entities. Did the golf course owner not open his mail? If news reports did not catch his eye, there had been advertisements in the newspapers asking businesses to call their legislators.
In 2010, I was doing some person-on-the-street interviews at a post office as income tax day approached. Among others, I chatted with a woman who was there to mail her income tax return. She was surprised that her taxes that year had gone down.
“It never occurred to me that my taxes would go down this year, with the Democrats in, but they did,” she said.
How, I wondered, was it possible to NOT know this? Since enactment of the Democratic program in the 2009 Congress, it had been heavily publicized that taxes for most people were reduced.
A few days ago I interviewed an advertising agency owner about his reaction to the decision by Tesla to open a plant in Nevada’s Storey County. He didn’t know about it. At that point it had been the lead story on every television and radio newscast and on the front page of the Reno Gazette Journal for four days straight.
Four years ago, Harvard scholar Jennifer Hochschild made an interesting argument. She wrote that there are three developments surrounding the expansion of voting rights. 1. Political players more or less universally consider an informed electorate to be essential. 2. For two centuries, the portion of the population with the vote has expanded and rarely decreased. 3. Most of these expansions of suffrage have drawn in voters “who are less politically informed or less broadly educated than those already eligible to vote.”
“Putting these three uncontroversial points together leads to the conclusion that as democracies become more democratic, their decision-making processes become of lower quality in terms of cognitive processing of issues and candidate choice.”
In 2008, at the Volokh Conspiracy website, there was discussion of whether poorly informed voters have a responsibility to abstain from voting. George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin wrote, “If citizens do indeed have a duty to either become informed about politics or refrain from casting a ballot, most of them aren’t living up to it. I have argued that this is perfectly rational and not a sign of voters’ ‘stupidity.’ But rational conduct isn’t always morally defensible conduct.”
There’s an episode of the “West Wing” in which there is discussion of the way opinion surveys are weighted for likely voters, and that the most disenchanted voters are not likely to vote. When a third party candidate wins the presidency, one presidential staffer tells a presidential advisor, it will be by UNlikely voters.
The advisor responds, “And why is that good? Why are we eager, why are we encouraging a group of people who are so howl-at-the-moon, lazy-ass stupid that they can’t bring themselves to raise their hands?”
Of course, there will be those who will argue with Ms. Hochschild’s third premise, who will say that some voters have common sense or native intelligence derived from real world experiences that substitute for education or information, and they may have a point.
But I must say that sometimes all those good government get-out-the-vote drives make me nervous.
Dennis Myers is an award winning journalist who has reported on Nevada’s capital, government and politics for several decades. He has also served as Nevada’s chief deputy secretary of state.