The Wilson Quarterly

If voting were mandatory, would voters get smarter? Three Canadian political scientists conducted an experiment. They recruited a group of newly eligible voters for a study of“youth attitudes” and divided the sample randomly. They promised about half of the student subjects $25 to take two exams on civic affairs; the rest were offered the same $25 to take the tests and vote in the upcoming provincial election. Would the students required to vote become more knowledgeable than the ­others?

The participants in the study were not necessarily Canada’s future Nobel laureates. They were picked from ­pre-­university classes and courses with minimal admission requirements. Peter John Loewen, Henry Milner, and Bruce M. Hicks of the University ofMontreal administered tests one month before the election and again after. Questions included such head scratchers as which party was in power when the election was called, which party wanted to maintain a freeze on tuition, and which party leader had been criticized for using the term “slanted eyes.”

Both groups essentially got about 28 percent of the political know­ledge questions right on the first round and 43 percent on the sec­ond round. There was no statistical difference between those paid to vote and those not. The researchers found no evidence that either group discussed politics more frequently, and only slight evidence that the group that was required to vote in order to collect its $25 paid more attention to radio, television, or newspapers during the ­campaign.

Political scientists who have called for compulsory voting to motivate more citizens to partici­pate in the electoral process should go back to the drawing board, the authors say. Evidently, even financial incentives are not sufficient to make the ­non­voter learn more about ­politics.

THE SOURCE: “Does Compulsory Voting Lead to More Informed and Engaged Citizens? An Experimental Test” by Peter John Loewen, Henry Milner, and Bruce M. Hicks, in Canadian Journal of Political Science, Sept. ­2008.

Photo courtesy of Flickr/Dean Shareski

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