Election Day Epistemology

by Rick Pimentel

Election Day is nearing with the most important voting issue being the Presidential election. However, there are other significant votes to be tallied such as state ballot measures, state constitutional amendments and Congressional elections. This election year has produced several talking points such as policy issues, candidates' behavior and media coverage. However, there is one factor that ultimately decides the elections - the voter.

According to the Committee for the Study of American Electorate, 60.4% of all eligible voters in 2004 went to the polls. This was the highest turnout for a Presidential election since 1968. In addition, these figures along with the 54.2% in the 2000 election raised optimism about voter turnout. Only 49.5% of all eligible voters turned out for the 1996 election. If the 2004 election was a sign of things to come then, possibly, this year's voter turnout could be greater. The high television ratings for the Vice-Presidential and Presidential debates and the low approval ratings for the President and the Congress may indicate a strong voter interest in November's election. Obviously, there is much riding in any election and that falls on the shoulders of the electorate. Therefore it is important to examine the philosophical process behind the act of voting.

The act of voting depends on the knowledge that voters possess and how they employ that knowledge to vote for candidates, referenda, amendments, and initiatives. Voters in the United States possess a myriad of beliefs that they carry with them into the voting booth. Some of these beliefs may be true, while other beliefs may not be. According to the most commonly held view of knowledge, knowledge is justified true belief (JTB). Simply put, if you believe something and this belief can be justified and it is true, then this counts as knowledge. Surely, this epistemological viewpoint has its critics but it is widely held. When voters state, "I know that Sen. Obama will be a great President." Or "I know that Sen. Dole will continue to be an effective North Carolina senator." Or "I know that marriage should be re-defined to include a homosexual couple," this is deemed knowledge in the epistemic sense or is it really?

Voters' beliefs can range from distrust of a candidate to preference to a liberal over a conservative to an inclination to vote for a particular party to adherence to a single important policy issue. For some voters, there is one belief that informs their vote, such as "the right candidate is pro-life" while for other voters, there is a package of beliefs such as "a fiscal and social liberal that emphasizes diplomacy over conflict is the right candidate." Whichever it is, these beliefs must then be justified. The numerous beliefs held by the American electorate, in order to count as knowledge, need proper warrant. For instance, if someone believes that Sen. Obama's past associations with William Ayers and Rev. Jeremiah Wright discredits his judgment then proper warrant for this belief must be acquired. Similarly, if someone believes that Sen. McCain's 25 years in Congress compared to Sen. Obama's 3 years experience in Congress translates to a more effective President, then justification for this belief is needed. The justification of these beliefs and others held by voters is significant. If a voter adheres to beliefs that are not justified, then these beliefs are improperly deemed true and subsequently counted as knowledge.

Justification (warrant for beliefs) can be attained through various means such as empirical evidence, rational argument, intuition, and appeal to authority or authoritative testimony. The latter means is highly utilized by the American voter. Many voters today seek out partisan views and sound bites rather than thoughtful analysis. Partisan pundits with strong pointed criticisms seems to be more popular than the critical examination of candidates, policy issues, and the philosophical assumptions that lie behind election issues. This does not mean that people should not listen to popular conservative and liberal pundits. This does not mean that these pundits are not credible and do not offer any benefits to voters. However, it does mean that the justification of beliefs that determine one's vote needs to include a more balanced approach. In addition to pundits, albeit liberal, conservative, moderate, socialist, laissez-faire capitalist, etc., voters need to look for strong philosophical examinations. For instance, when someone believes that Sen. Obama plans to "spread the wealth", what is the philosophy that lies behind this remark? Some quickly react by saying, "He's a socialist." Other react just as hastily by stating, "No, he is not a socialist and that is a foolish thing to say." One is better served by critically examining the philosophical roots, the diverse schools of thought, and historical development of socialism in contrast to capitalism. You may still reach the same conclusion but at the very least there was an honest attempt to justify your claim.

This brief epistemic analysis of the electorate may contain high expectations. It can be extremely difficult and time consuming to scrutinize every belief or claim that a voter possesses. Nonetheless, it is important for an informed voter to undergo this process. There is much at stake during elections. Decisions made by voters affect the lives of Americans and the lives of many people abroad. Moreover, if a voter's knowledge is faulty then their application of this knowledge in the act of voting will be faulty leading to an uninformed vote. However, there is a caveat in all this. Informed voters can come to different conclusions despite undertaking a rigorous philosophical examination of their knowledge. Although this can happen, the process will only enrich the voter and enrich the democratic process altogether.