ELECTION TIME Voters struggle with their lack of knowledge
Some voters use their gut instinct, a professor says.
The calls come to Project Vote Smart in a steady stream, from New York and New Mexico, from California and Connecticut, from the confused in every corner of the land.
Who is my congressman?, they ask. How can I reach him? How do I register to vote? Who is running for office? Where do they stand on the issues?
Some know exactly what to ask. But others, says 21-year-old volunteer Kelly Flanagan, "have a very vague idea of what they want" -- they are stumbling through the labyrinth of American democracy without a map.
There are many of those people, and come November, they will help choose the next leader of the most powerful country on the planet.
They are ignorant though they are awash with information -- on television and radio, in print and on the Internet. They are ill-informed because they do not have the time or wherewithal or inclination to learn, or misinformed because they are at the mercy of spinmeisters.
"We're not well informed, and a lot of that is our fault," says Mario Cuomo, former governor of New York. "If the public chose to inform itself, there's no question that it could."
It would be an overstatement to paint America as a confederacy of dunces; There are those who say we may not be a nation of civic superstars, but we know enough to get by.
Through the years, pollsters have tried to assess how much Americans know. Michael X. Delli Carpini and Scott Keeter, in their book "What Americans Know About Politics and Why It Matters," looked at 3,700 survey questions posed between 1940 and 1994.
The results do not inspire confidence.
In 1945, only 45 percent knew that the government regulated radio.
In 1952, only 27 percent could name two branches of government.
In 1970, only 24 percent could identify the secretary of state.
In 1988, only 47 percent could locate England on a map.
All together, Americans knew the answers about 40 percent of the time.
The numbers have remained fairly steady over the years. Delli Carpini points out that they mask differences among groups -- women, minorities and young people score low.
Most of the ignorant aren't stupid, he says. They just lack motivation to learn, or access to information, or the education necessary to negotiate the system.
"Over time, if you look at a broad level of knowledge, most people are kind of middling informed," says Delli Carpini, dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. "They're certainly not the ignoramuses that they're often painted as."
Voting by instinct
Regardless, they know enough -- at least according to Samuel Popkin, a professor at the University of California at San Diego. Popkin suggests that Americans vote by filtering small bits of information and using their instincts.
"That's what they do, and it's not so bad," he says. "That's how they hire people, choose baby sitters ... Somehow in your gut, you figure these things out."
Popkin calls it "gut rationality." It works best when the choices are clear, and not complicated, he says. Most elections are like that: "People don't learn more than they need to make a simple choice. You're choosing between two brands."
And in a crisis -- in wartime or economic hard times -- they pay more attention, and are better informed, he says.
Popkin acknowledges that gut rationality doesn't always work. When people think they know something, and they don't, they often make mistakes.
Preconceived notions also can derail a citizen's judgment. Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, says the Internet can keep minds closed instead of opening them; people who previously had to wade through newspapers that offered opposing points of view now turn to Web sites or television channels that conform with their own beliefs.
Not that they need any help in keeping their minds closed.
Ask people to make a series of estimates about welfare -- as political scientists in Illinois did in 1997 -- and most will make mistakes consistently. If you have a bias against welfare, you'll overestimate the annual benefits for a family, the proportion of the federal budget spent on welfare, the percentage of welfare mothers without a high school education.
"People usually know what they're doing in mating, mothering and making friends," say political scientists James Kuklinski and Paul Quirk of the University of Illinois.
But they're not hard-wired to make the kinds of decisions they need to vote, the professors say. And American democracy -- which once depended on the elites to help voters make decisions, and then on political parties -- now relies on the individual's informed decision-making.
Citizenship has only gotten more difficult as the world has gotten more complicated. "The intellectual task of casting an informed ballot has changed," says Michael Schudson, author of "The Good Citizen." "It has become much tougher than it used to be, 100 or even 50 years ago."