Political Ignorance

, an economist at Canterbury University, has done a fascinating study based on 2005 NZ Election Study behaviour.

His 33 page study looks at . His abstract explains:

Large proportions of the electorate can best be described as politically ignorant. If casting a competent vote requires some basic knowledge of the incumbent’s identity, the workings of the political system, one’s own policy preferences and the policy preferences of the main candidates, many voters cannot vote competently.

Wittman (1989) suggests that, if ignorance is unbiased, overall results will be determined by informed voters as the ignorant cancel each other out. Lupia and McCubbins (1998) provides a mechanism whereby voters with little information can take cues from more informed colleagues in order to vote as if they had the requisite information.

Using data from a uniquely useful dataset, the 2005 New Zealand Election Survey, I show that both mechanisms fail. Political ignorance is not unbiased: rather, it strongly predicts policy and political party preferences after correcting for the demographic correlates of ignorance. Moreover, membership in the kinds of organizations held to allow the ignorant to overcome their deficiencies fails to improve outcomes. Voter ignorance remains a very serious problem.

So how does Crampton decide if someone is politically ignorant? He had five criteria:

  1. An inability to correctly place National, Labour and United Future relative to each other on the political spectrum. 40% could not place them correctly as National to right of Labour, United Future to left of National and United Future to right of Labour.
  2. Not understanding MMP, such as thinking the electorate vote is more important than the party vote in determining the composition of Parliament, not knowing the threshold of 5%/1 seat, for thinking FPP is more likely to have the party with the most votes have the most seats, and for inconsistencies such as saying they prefer there be only two parties in Parliament but support MMP.
  3. Not knowing the term of Parliament, ot knowing enrolment to vote is compulsory and not knowing permament residents can vote (only 28% knew this).
  4. Not knowing what parties formed the 2002-05 (then current) Government.
  5. Not knowing the name and party affiliation of their local MP

You can quibble over individual criteria, but overall there is little doubt that those who fail most of these criteria, are not making much of an informed vote. Eric talks on his blog about the criteria here.

An economic ignorance score is also calculated based on their responses to economic questions.

So who is more or less likely to be politically ignorant. The figures below are proportions of a standard deviation, so the higher positive it is, the more politically ignorant that demographic was, and a negative figure means they are less likely to be politically ignorant:

  • Follow political news on Internet -0.068
  • Active member of Church -0.117
  • University educated -.369
  • Farming -.377
  • on DPB +.149
  • Left Wing -0.302
  • Thought Govt was good +0.09

So those who actively identify as left wing are far less likely to be politically ignorant, but those who though the 2002-05 Labour/Progressive Government was good were more likely to be politically ignorant.

And how about voting preferences:

In the party support specifications, I restricted the sample to those reporting having voted. When they get to the polls, the ignorant are significantly more likely to support the Labour Party (4% increase in predicted probability for a standard deviation increase in ignorance) and significantly less likely to support the Green party (1% decrease in predicted probability) and United Future (0.5% decrease in predicted probability).

There are lots of otehr interesting facts too:

Other interesting findings include that voters with internet access are less likely to vote but more likely to support National, Act and United Future, that very active church members are about 8% less likely to support National and 5% more likely to support United Future, that Labour’s play for the student vote with zero percent student loans seems not to have paid off as neither current nor former university students were more likely to support Labour in 2005, that Maori were 21.5% less likely to support National in a somewhat racially-charged election, that New Zealand First drew disproportionate support both from superannuitants and from those on family assistance, that those on high incomes weren’t particularly likely to support any party but that the divorced were almost 9% less likely to support Labour and 5% more likely to support the Greens.

And Eric has a useful conclusion:

While I have shown that ignorance causes bias, it would be far too hasty to say that ignorant Kiwis are generally biased towards the New Zealand Labour Party. Results here could simply reflect incumbency bias. Alternatively, the pattern could well be explained under rational expectations where the Labour Party promised to undertake more regulatory measures to protect people from the consequences of their choices, and the politically ignorant could perhaps be more likely to be in need of such protection. Isolation of incumbency effects versus biases towards the Labour Party would require analysis of prior years of the New Zealand Election Survey when Labour was not the incumbent and will be the subject of future work.

I for one very much look forward to the future work – the 2008 and hopefuly the 2011 elections.

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