Study: Politicians Don't Really Care What Voters Want... Because They Don't Have To
Do you remember the old Schoolhouse Rock segment about how a bill becomes a law? The first step, according to the bill, is that constituents come together in support of new legislation, they call their congressman, and the congressman sponsors the bill.
This is how we like to think the Republic works, whether we are talking about Congress or our state's legislature.
Unfortunately, it isn't.
Perhaps the most popular article passed around the nonpartisan reform community this week is a New York Times op-ed written by Joshua Kalla and Ethan Porter titled, "Politicians Really Don't Care What Voters Want." Kalla and Porter just concluded a two-year survey in which they found that a lot of state legislators are not interested in public opinion at all.
The researchers surveyed voters about their attitudes on issues like gun control, infrastructure spending, abortion, and other issues. Kalla and Porter then took the data to state legislators and, according to them, an "overwhelming majority of legislators were uninterested in learning about their constituents’ views."
"Perhaps more worrisome, however, was that when the legislators who did view the data were surveyed afterward, they were no better at understanding what their constituents wanted than legislators who had not looked at the data. For most politicians, voters’ views seemed almost irrelevant."
In their op-ed, Kalla and Porter go into detail about how precisely they conducted their research, including dividing legislators into groups that had access to the public opinion information and legislators who didn't. The information that most prominently sticks out though is this:
"When we first did the experiment, in the fall of 2017, only 11 percent of legislators viewed the website to learn about their constituents’ policy preferences."
11 percent! This is not legislators who looked at the data and decided to ignore it completely. They didn't bother to look at it all!
A Complete System Failure
Now, there will be some who look at this and think, "well of course, our lawmakers are only interested in what their major donors and special interests want." I am not saying there are not issues with money in politics to look into, but that 11 percent figure is interesting because it reminds me of another statistic:
Every elections cycle, over 90% of elections are safe for the incumbent or the party in power, meaning the most crucial vote is nearly always in low turnout partisan primary elections, where only the most hardcore of the parties' shrinking bases vote.
Think about it. Should we really be surprised that so few lawmakers care what we think? if lawmakers only really need to care how a statistical handful of voters cast their primary ballot, why would anyone else matter? And, why would they give even an inch to "the other side" to compromise on important legislation if that single inch could get them primaried out?
We have a serious competition problem in the US political industry. Certainly, this is a result of partisan primaries that give an outsized advantage to the political minority while disenfranchising millions of voters nationwide, More than 27 million independents nationwide can't even vote in primary election in their state, even though they pay for these elections.
But there are other factors that go into the lack of competition, including partisan gerrymandering, campaign finance rules that heavily favor parties, unfair ballot access laws, a system that perpetuates fear-based voting and thus actually discourages most voters from participating, exclusionary political debate rules... and the list goes on.
Voters Demand Reform
Voters are not unaware that the system does not serve their interests. A recent NBC News / Wall Street Journal survey found that people were more likely to agree that the US was not committed to democracy and majority rule than disagree.
Also, only 33% believe our system of government “works well to prepare and plan ahead to improve our country’s long-term problems.”
Of course, the national discussion doesn't focus on the failings of this government because the media -- which ultimately acts as a mouthpiece for one of the two major political parties -- is obsessed with Trump's latest rage-bating tweet and how the Democrats respond to it the same way every time. Keep people angry about something else entirely and the focus won't be on what policymakers aren't doing for voters.
The NBC News / Wall Street Journal survey found that a majority of survey takers supported 7 reforms to improve the democratic process: Congressional term limits (with the highest support at 71%), nonpartisan redistricting, making Election Day a national holiday, automatic voter registration, Supreme Court term limits, national popular vote, and public funding elections.
Missing from the poll, however, are nonpartisan reforms to make sure all voters and candidates have a level playing field in all stages of the taxpayer-funded election process, reforming the voter method to give voters greater choice and influence at the ballot box, and unrigging the debate rules from the state level to the presidential election to increase the competition of ideas in our political industry.
This is why what reformers are doing right now is important, and we have already seen historic action to unrig the political system. The 2018 election cycle was the biggest year in political reform in half a century. And hundreds of activists and organizations are working right now to make 2020 an even bigger year.