Does Voters Registration Really Produce More Informed Voters?

Concerning political knowledge, the Hungarian society occupies an average place amongst European countries.

When it comes to reasoning of the new electoral registration law (which would oblige all citizens to register themselves before casting their votes) the government cites only one argument: this very change of the law points towards a more conscious way of citizen participation. They also claim that voters of the future will decide more prudently and they will be more likely to act with due consideration.

In the debate of the procedure of the election (i.e. the plenary session in the Parliament about the modification of the law) it was often declared that voters are not informed and they have absolutely no knowledge about the political system – hence they are not able to make a responsible decision. Certain parties connect familiarity with the amount of education received and they would even like to exclude citizens without certificate of primary education from the whole electoral system. Being poorly informed is seems to be somewhat a bent but are voters in Hungary really less knowledgeable than the voters of other European countries?

Take a look at the numbers!

During the elections to the European Parliament in 2009 a survey on citizens’ political knowledge consisting of a few questions on internal politics and the EU was made. Although the aspects of being informed deserve a whole study, right now we have to work with the following method. In this survey respondents had to decide whether a statement was true or false; internal politics was measured by three questions.

The Minister of Education is known by many, age limit only by a few

The hardest question for the respondents was about the age limit: four Hungarians out of ten believed that the false statement – a Hungarian MP candidate should be at least 25 years old – is actually true. This statement meant a problem for other European citizens as well: 37 per cent of them answered it wrongly.

The next statement named the Minister of Education of the given country correctly: more than two thirds of those who participated in the survey (69 per cent) answered that the correct statement was indeed true. Hungary is slightly below the EU-average: 66 per cent of respondents realised it correctly that at the time of the study István Hiller was the Minister of Education.

The rate of correct answers was quite similar when the question was about the number of seats in the parliament: one and a half times larger – in case of Hungary, 579 – number of seats were given than the real one; every second European respondent knew that the given number is false. Maybe it was the debate around the number of MPs in the Hungarian Parliament which had a positive effect on familiarity with politics but Hungarians were way better than the average Europeans: nearly two thirds of the asked ones knew correctly that the number of MPs is certainly not 579.

Every fifth Hungarian is very informed, 40 per cent of the population is well-informed

Putting together the three answers we are able to see the rate of informed and ill-informed citizens in the given societies. It becomes clearly visible that Hungary is not at all behind the other European countries since the size of the most knowledgeable layer of society corresponds with the EU-average while the rate of those who were not able to give a single correct answer is even smaller. According to these questions one fifth of the population can be considered very informed (3 correct answers) and another 40 per cent is well-informed (2 good answers) Only 10 per cent of the population (one citizen out of ten) was not able to give a single correct answer – they are the ones whom we can call absolutely poorly informed.  These data show that the image of the badly informed Hungarian voter is false: when talking about political knowledge, the Hungarian society occupies an average place amongst the European countries.

If we really want to increase familiarity with the political system other ways seem to be more efficient

Of course further progress should be made: the Northern members of the EU with traditionally good educational system are in the TOP 3 and they also have the highest rate of those citizens who were able to answer all the three questions correctly. It seems that the government should rather focus on strengthening the educational system and making it more efficient; only the well-educated citizen becomes really informed. This law about voter registration on the other hand reflects and conserves the current differences between voters. And here comes another possible correlation: besides the Scandinavian countries, Baltic States with high Internet penetration exceeds the average concerning familiarity as well. There is a lot to do here as well; a broader and thorough knowledge is expected via the use of the internet – which is able to hand information over quickly and in a complex way – than from the voter registration, which relies on the so-called Client Gate (a government-operated website, where Hungarian citizens can handle their official ‘paperwork’ electronically).

Logically wide spreading of Internet should come first and only after it can the Client Gate be a fundamental necessity, since there is no use talking about the Internet-based ‘voluntary registration which is open for anyone’ when Internet is not even accessible in every household.

Finally, when debating about the compulsory voter registration it might be interesting that in Belgium and Italy – where the participation in elections is obligatory – citizens are way less informed concerning the political system that in many other European countries.

Republikon Institute