If there's one thing I know about low-information voters from my conversations with them, it's that they don't think they're low-information voters. Which made me wonder if I'm a low-information voter. Especially since I have no idea who's running against my Senator, couldn't tell you what my Congresswoman has ever done and, despite intensive studying, still feel like I need to do more online research on Measure B, the proposed L.A. law to require actors to wear condoms while filming pornography.
So I searched for a test to tell me if I'm smart enough to vote. The Are You Smart Enough to Vote test on HelloQuizzy.com started with the statement "Most people simply aren't smart enough to vote, but they do anyway, and when that happens, all they do is hurt the rest of the nation." Then it begged me to rate its test with the plea "If you don't even want to bother finishing this test, just rate it." Apparently, you have to make a lot of difficult compromises to survive as a quiz website.
I passed that test and scored perfectly on a practice U.S. citizenship test. I had no problem with the American National Election Studies test, which has been given before and after every presidential election since 1948. I did pretty well on the Civic Health Index, though it faulted me for not being an officer of an organization, not being on a sports team and not asking my neighbors for enough favors. But I figure if I just go door to door asking people to vote for me as treasurer of our street's new croquet team, I'll be ready for Election Day.
Still, I wanted official validation. So I called Samuel Popkin, the University of California at San Diego political-science professor who wrote The Candidate: What It Takes to Win--and Hold--the White House and coined the term low-information voter in 1991 to describe the less politically savvy electorate. Without even asking me any questions, Popkin said, "You're not a low-information voter. You read the paper and Time magazine." Which is technically true, if you count reading my own column as reading TIME magazine.
Even when I admitted to Popkin that I know nothing about my Congresswoman, he didn't change his mind. "If she got hit by a bus and there was a primary, you'd pay a little attention," he said. "If the dishwasher goes, you'll pay attention to dishwashers." I thought I was a low-information voter, but apparently Popkin thinks people in Congress wash our dishes.
But what I learned while talking to Popkin is that he invented the term low information to defend those voters. He came up with it while thinking about how Gerald Ford, in 1976, tried to eat a tamale without removing the wrapper first. Popkin says Mexican Americans who knew only this about Ford could reason that he didn't understand them or their issues. When I argued that low-information voters could be making horrible single-issue decisions that affect everything else, he suggested I was judgmental and arrogant: "How many women are voting on choice? How many Hispanics vote on immigration? How many blacks voted on civil rights? Are they wrong? Are you telling people they have bad priorities?" It's as if Popkin had never talked to a columnist before.