Why Are Voters Ignorant about Regional Elections?

Creative Commons

A friend of mine, currently living abroad, has recently arrived to the Czech Republic. His currently limited knowledge of our elections schedule made him think that the elections to the Chamber of Deputies are taking place here. The campaign is everywhere. However, he was quite shocked by the reality, meaning that the campaign was “only” for the regional elections. However, we cannot be surprised by his misconception: on the billboards we can see the smiling faces of the non-running party-leaders and the electoral speeches address a number of topics that the regional councils could only dream about to fall within their authority.

On the regional level, there are many issues. However, smiling politicians (such as Minister of Finance Babiš, Prime Minister Sobotka or opposition leader Fiala) promise people that they will solve the problems concerning migration, stabilization of the social system, highway reconstructions and construction of new ones, accessible healthcare, limiting the corruption or the elimination of oligarchs at the political scene. These topics never can be solved by regional councils; it is just a snare on voters. What enables them to do that?

There are two words that can explain that phenomenon: rational ignorance. This economic concept was proposed by the English economist Anthony Downs, who explained it in the following way: it might seem, at first glance, that it is optimal to have as much information as possible about everything. However, obtaining the information is expensive – financially (I have to buy the books or obtain other materials), time-wise (it takes some time to collect the information and I could spend it in a different way) or intellectually (I simply need to think, which requires some effort on my part). That is why people behave rationally and collect only the information about which they are convinced that “possessing” it will bring them the highest utility comparing to the situation if they did not obtain it.

Therefore, I do not mind investing a minute of my time into having a look at the time-schedule, because without this information I could spend hours waiting pointlessly at the train station. I do not mind obtaining the information about how to prevent myself from a disease, because the danger of catching it and other inconvenience connected to it would be a much bigger expense. I do not mind reading an article about how to prepare the garden for winter, as I could have had much more expenses the next spring unless I have this knowledge. I do not mind comparing the prices of a kitchen gadget on the Internet, because the saving from this behavior will be probably much higher than from a few minutes of clicking. However, this simply does not work in politics. The voters have different ideas about the expenses and profits from their behavior, so let’s explain that.

Let’s imagine a voter who would like to prepare for the elections in the best way possible. In order to do so, he would read the election programs of all the parties in his district, he would go through the profiles of all the candidates and arrange an appointment with the preferred ones, so that he meets in person the one for whom he will cast his vote in the end. And the expenses related to that? Dozens of hours of an unpaid activity that he could have spent working (and thus earning money) or having fun. Dozens of working hours might mean something, but the voter is well aware of the expenses of his behavior.

And what are the voter’s revenues? Very, very unsure. If he casts his vote into the ballot box, his candidate might be elected. If he is elected, maybe he will get to the real political power. If he gets to the real political power, maybe he will be in charge of the field that is important to our voter. If he is in charge of that field, maybe he will remember the voter and do something in his favor. And if so, maybe this measure will really pass despite the opposition which has their own voters and interests to take care of.

There are so many question marks around the revenues coming from the careful obtaining of political information, that the voters will probably decide that it is not even worth it. And that they would rather go to a pub. From the economic point of view, it is an absolutely logical thing: The elector decides rationally that earning the information is pointless for him, in view of the fact that the expenses are so big, and that he prefers to stay rationally ignorant.

There is a simple answer of our politicians to this rational ignorance struggle: famous faces and attractive topics. Who cares that these people will neither be in the regional council nor are they authorized to decide about these topics – after all, our rationally-ignorant elector has no idea about it after all.

Liberalni Institute