Every now and then, when a section of the populace in a democratic society is disappointed with the outcome of a public vote, they advance arguments that certain restrictions should be introduced to the voting system to prevent the ‘wrong people’ from participating.
For instance, the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the choice of Brexit by British referendum voters had the educated elite, who almost unanimously argued against both events, calling for a complete overhaul of the voting process, with some in the United Kingdom arguing in fact for the conduct of fresh referendums – till infinity – until they got the outcome they think is better for society. Popular choice be damned.
Without sure knowledge of what the main trigger was, the same debate played out this week in Nigeria’s social media space when a chat-group created on Clubhouse, an invitation-only social network for iPhone users, posed the question ‘should uninformed Nigerians be allowed to vote?’
Those who argued in favor of stripping this ill-defined ‘uninformed’ Nigerians of their right to vote generally called for the replacement – or upgrade, as they considered it – of our democracy which presently affords all adult Nigerians the right to exercise franchise with a form of epistocracy where only those with proven ‘political knowledge’ are allowed to vote.
This, in their view, will improve the outcome of elections through useful engagement and scrutinization of electoral candidates and poll options to distinguish serious aspirants from populist charlatans with poor policy ideas and unrealistic promises of Eldorado.
Epistocracy as a refinement of popular democracy is not an idea held only by smartphone-wielding Nigerians, neither is it completely without some merit or at the very least positive intentions.
Research has shown a correlation between education and the strength of democracy and there are indeed lots of ignorant voters who approach the polls unaware of the grave importance of the activity and thus press their thumb against a party symbol for mundane reasons.
I have met a voter who gave his vote to a governorship candidate primarily because he liked the way he dressed. Obviously, while a candidate’s style of dressing could tell us a lot about his/her sense of fashion, it has little to say on far more serious considerations such as policy proposals for economic growth and poverty eradication.
Jason Brennan, one of the prominent proponents of epistocracy, argued this extensively in his book aptly titled ‘Against Democracy’. He claimed that voting is ironically handed out freely to all citizens as a natural right despite the serious consequences associated with it, while nearly every other activity, including driving, with far less potential for disaster, is restricted only to qualified candidates. A car accident can claim dozens of lives but a wrong choice of leadership at the polls could cause the death of millions to poverty following the implementation of a poorly considered economic policy or a misguided war.
These contentions are well understood, but the question none of the proponents of epistocracy have satisfactorily answered is: how do you sort or classify voters into the various categories put forward? It may seem a trivial question to some considering they have in their heads a series of nationwide tests to establish the qualification of citizens for the prized possession of a vote.
But, from where will the examiners derive their own legitimacy? To test the fitness of the political knowledge of others, yours must have been proven objectively sound. This means that the examiners must themselves undergo a test. And then of course, those intended to test the examiners must also be subjected to the same, ad infinitum. It is a problem impossible to solve.
Furthermore, as admitted by the epistocracy proponents, an ‘informed electorate’ only lowers chances of ‘poor electoral choices’ not eliminate it. They remain vulnerable to the same pitfalls as the supposedly uninformed mass and will make occasional poor judgments. After all, we have seen otherwise reasonable and educated people captured by baseless conspiracy theories or argue for the implementation of economic policies that turned out disastrous. Is it morally acceptable to make the masses suffer the consequence of decisions made without their contribution? And what effect will that have on peaceful co-existence?
The ills of democracy, especially in states with widespread poverty and illiteracy, may make epistocracy seem like a smart correction but it is an impracticable idea that will increase strife and inevitably descend into tyranny. We are better off debating ways to improve voter education and political party processes than plotting how to prevent others from holding the same right we lay claim to.