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Pyle: Low-information voters better than faux-information lawmakers

Published March 7, 2014 5:15 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

"To me, the scariest voter is the uninformed voter." — Rep. Mike Noel, R-Kanab

Indeed. Uninformed voters can, and often do, make uninformed decisions. They can, as Noel said the other day in defense of Utah's caucus and convention nominating system, choose who to vote for on the basis of — Gasp! — TV ads.

That's the problem with democracy and free speech. Candidates and their supporters can say things you don't like, things that may be just as misleading, if not as downright false, as backers of the other candidate say they are. And the only retribution they are liable to face is that they might be exposed as so many bald-faced liars and, maybe, lose the election.

Exposed by, oh, I don't know, a newspaper?

And, yes, people you don't like can say more things you don't like, more often, to more voters, if they have more money than you do. Which means that the defense of the caucus system, in the face of the Count My Vote drive to replace it with direct primaries, was the first time it had occurred to most Utah politicians that money can skew the results of an election.

Though caucus supporters seemed to think, without any evidence, that those who participate in caucuses and conventions develop some kind of immunity to both media ads and to more intimate forms of campaign spending.

The idea that caucus-goers are more trustworthy that run-of-the-mill voters, because they had studied the issues and met the candidates, is not all that different from the other forms of representative democracy, the delegation of authority to city councils, legislatures and Congress.

But elections are supposed to be the many choosing the few, not the few choosing the fewer.

Meanwhile, no matter the system, we are left with the spectre of the uninformed voter. Which is a less wonky term for what has come to be known as the "low-information voter." You know, someone who doesn't know anything that wasn't on Fox News and thus, according to yet another new study, knows less about current events than people who don't follow the news at all.

Like the high-priced campaign operatives surrounding poor Mitt Romney on election night, telling him he was going to win, because they had no information from anywhere but the right-wing echo chamber.

(To be fair, viewers of the left-leaning MSNBC didn't do all that much better on the aforementioned Fairleigh Dickinson University's PublicMind survey, especially on questions involving foreign affairs. Those who did the best? NPR listeners, and those who watch the Sunday morning talks shows on the old mainstream media networks.)

What that study didn't measure, at least in Utah, was the impact of low-information legislators. You know, the ones who deny climate change, think the atmosphere would be healthier with more carbon dioxide, really seem to believe that all the federal land in Utah really belongs to the state and think they'd ease the federal deficit by not expanding Medicaid.

Then we have the many cases where arguments are based not on low information, but on no information, or even faux information.

For example, as more and more judges consider whether they ought to just go ahead and put an end to every remaining ban on same-sex marriage, they are told by marriage equality opponents that this or that scientific study shows that households headed by same-sex couples are prone to various mental and social dysfunctions.

And then those judges are told by others — in some cases the real authors of those same studies — that no such conclusion is valid.

At worst, there just isn't enough known about children born into stable, loving same-sex households, or adopted into them as infants. Until quite recently, the data available was mostly about children who started life in a "traditional marriage" home and watched it fall apart when one or the other parent left that relationship for a homosexual pairing they found more fulfilling. The kind of upheaval that would happen significantly less often if same-sex marriages were equal before the law.

Meanwhile, attempts by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan to bring some intellectual rigor to his proposals to viciously cut food stamps and other programs for the poor are undermined by the authors of the very studies he is quoting. They say he is reading them all wrong and distorting their meaning.

Compared to all that, the damage that can be wrought by your average uninformed voter seems negligible. Because, if you will forgive yet another quote from Thomas Jefferson, "Ignorance is preferable to error."

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, has long thought that Donald Rumsfeld actually got it right when he was warning about the difference between the "known unknowns" and the "unknown unknowns."

gpyle@sltrib.com

Twitter: @debatestate