Should Voters Be Tested?

Daniel A. Bell is director of the Center for International and Comparative Political Theory at Tsinghua University, Beijing and his forthcoming book is titled "On Political Meritocracy: China and the Limits of Democracy." Elena Ziliotti is a doctoral candidate at the National University of Singapore - King's College London joint PhD program in philosophy.

SINGAPORE -- The great political theorists of the past -- from Aristotle to Rousseau and Montesquieu -- all converged on the argument that democracy works best in small communities. At the local level, people have more knowledge of the ability and virtue of the leaders they choose. The issues are relatively straightforward and easy to understand. It is easier to generate a sense of community at the local level. And the mistakes are less costly at the local level.

Somehow, this point has been obscured from modern Western political thought and practice. Westerners devised a one-size-fits-all solution for choosing political leaders. Whether it's a small community or a huge political grouping of hundreds of millions of people, the leaders should be chosen in free and fair competitive elections, with each adult having one vote.

In China, it's a different story. At the local level, there is widespread agreement that democracy is a good thing. But the political system is premised on the assumption that different criteria for the selection and promotion of leaders should apply at different levels of government. In a large, populous and modernizing country, the process should become more meritocratic as leaders go further up the chain of political command.

At the central level, the issues are more complex, and leaders should have a good understanding of economics, science, international relations, history and political philosophy. They should also be constantly willing to learn and upgrade their skills, particularly in a globalized world that changes faster than at any time in human history. The issues also matter more from a moral point of view, given that policies can affect not just "the people," but future generations, foreigners and the natural world. In short, the political system should be explicitly designed to choose leaders with superior ability and virtue at higher levels of government.

The political system in China has been partly shaped by these ideals. At the local level, the system is relatively democratic. The Chinese government introduced direct village elections in 1988, and they have occurred in some 700,000 villages, reaching 75 percent of the nation's 1.3 billion people. At higher levels of government, China has evolved a sophisticated and comprehensive system of selecting and promoting political talent. Aspiring government officials go through a battery of tests and trials, and can only be promoted to the highest levels following decades of good performance at lower levels of government.

Of course, the Chinese political system is flawed in practice. The system needs to be more democratic: at the local level, elections are not always as free and fair as they should be. The system also needs to be more meritocratic: the promotion of officials should be determined by ability and morality rather than political connections and family background. But the model itself -- democracy at the bottom, with the system becoming progressively more meritocratic at higher levels of government -- is good and should set the standard for judging improvements.

In Europe, by way of contrast, the model itself is flawed. The expectation that people will vote in an informed way in a large, populous and highly diverse political organization composed of different countries is simply not realistic. The EU's policies affect both national and European citizens, and the European voter is supposed to vote for parties that represent both national and European interests. In principle, the European voter should have good understanding of both national and European politics, be willing to learn the latest news as it impacts on national and European politics, as well as have detailed knowledge of the different parties' platforms so that they can make an informed decision about which party is best able to deal with the EU's problems, such as a stagnant GDP and high youth unemployment. Whether or not one favors a stronger or a weaker EU, the future of Europe should not rest only on the local policies of the different European countries.

The European voter seems to be ill-prepared for this task. For one thing, voter turnout has been decreasing over two decades, with only 43 percent voting in the 2009 European elections. And those who do vote often show extremist tendencies. In May, the citizens of the 28 European countries will elect 751 representatives to the European Parliament. Polls suggest that anti-EU populists of the left and the right could take between 16 percent and 25 percent of the parliament's seats -- up from 12 percent today -- and reform of the EU will become even more difficult. Perhaps voters want extremist parties that block positive change. But do the voters really know what they want?

A survey conducted by the Spanish Centro de Investigaciones Sociólogicas casts doubt on the competence of the European voter. The majority of respondents voted for the EP without informed political knowledge of European issues: 58.6 percent of respondents recognized that their vote was mainly influenced by "the current political situation in Spain," and "issues relating to the European Union and the European Parliament" influenced the vote of only 13.7 percent of the respondents. Furthermore, 56.4 percent of the respondents declared that they had never or almost never read the political and electoral information available in newspapers, and 92.6 percent said they never searched for information about the election on the internet.

The lack of informed voting cannot be blamed on misunderstanding of the stakes involved: 72.6 percent admitted that the EU's decisions affect the life of the Spanish. In short, the Spanish citizen recognized that their collective choices of EP representatives could impact both Spain and Europe, but they lacked the political knowledge necessary to vote in an informed way. It is highly unlikely that the voters of other European countries are more rational.

So what can be done to improve the political competence of the European voter? Unlike China, democratic habits are deeply embedded, and pure meritocratic alternatives to selecting political leaders by means of popular elections are not realistic. But meritocratic proposals designed to improve voter competence can be injected in the system without undermining democratic foundations. Ideally, the voter would need to pass a test meant to demonstrate knowledge of the different platforms of all 13 Euro parties. But few voters have the time and energy to prepare for such a test. A proposal for reform should not be too demanding. Hence, a more realistic solution is to require the voters to pass a compulsory multiple choice test on the platforms of only two of the 13 recognized Euro parties.

Testing the voters on the platforms of two parties does not violate the democratic principle that everyone has an equal right to vote, since every European citizen would still have the equal opportunity to vote and the voter could choose the two party platforms on which they want to be evaluated. The test itself would require only a few hours of preparation, no more than a multiple-choice test for a driver's license. And the test would ensure that voters have at least minimal understanding of the agenda of two Euro parties rather than blindly siding with one party.

To improve the political knowledge of the voter, perhaps the test can be administered one month before the election, and the "failures" would have an opportunity to rewrite the test a few days before the election. And new political formations should not be excluded from the testing/electoral process. If a new political party can gather, say, 100,000 signatures, the platform of the party can be put on the next text. There is no reason to freeze the number of Euro parties at 13.

The point of testing the voter is not to favor a particular political party or political orientation. To ensure political neutrality, the tests should be administered by nonpartisan organizations, and the various political parties can choose their own questions. What matters is that voters have good knowledge of what (and who) they vote for so that political representatives are more likely to enact sound policies. If Europe can learn from China, the great Western political theorists of the past would also be cheering for Europe.