March 23, 2016
In the thick of this historic election year, one hears often the bemoaned refrain about the ignorant voter. But soon-to-be published research by Susquehanna University political science professor Nick Clark finds that if voters are uninformed, it may be the politicians themselves who are on the hook.
Clark's study, to be published in the journal Political Studies, examines how the transparency of the political process affects the political knowledge of voters.
"The research on political knowledge consistently finds that most individuals know very little about their political system," Clark said. "This is problematic, because if individuals are unable to accurately evaluate the performance of their elected officials due to a lack of transparency, there is less to hinder leaders who would act without considering the public interest."
To analyze the effects of transparency on political knowledge, Clark used data from the Comparative Study of Electoral Systems (CSES). The CSES includes data from 40 democratic countries and offers a robust examination of the conditions that facilitate a more knowledgeable electorate.
Additionally, Clark examined a seemingly intuitive relationship that has not yet been considered within the political science literature: the extent to which structures of power include voters in the decision-making process and the ability of voters to act as informed citizens.
He found, perhaps expectedly, that opportunities for the public to observe and learn about political actors involved in the process lead to a more informed electorate. Transparency concerns things Clark said we often take for granted in the United States:
- That government meetings are open to the public
- That the minutes of meetings are provided (usually) online
- That citizens have a legal right to request government documents (such as through the Freedom of Information Act)
- That the rationale of decision-making actors be provided to the public
"For the most part, we have all of this in the U.S., but it does not exist in every democracy," Clark said. "This suggests that efforts by the international community to promote democracy through institutional reforms may have dual benefits, creating a more accountable political process and, as a result, fostering a more vibrant democratic citizenry."
The takeaway, according to Clark, is that the government has a responsibility to its citizens to operate in a transparent manner, so that its citizens can directly observe and learn about the political actors and decision-making processes in their political system.
"This pertains to national government all the way down to our local governing bodies," Clark said. "Voters can be uninformed, but their governments play a direct role in making sure they are doing everything they can to ensure an educated electorate."