I have often wondered if it would be worthwhile for ballots to verify that voters understand the issues they are voting on, and whether this could be achieved objectively.

Case in point: I had a conversation a few years ago in which a person told me "I am voting 'Yes' on ballot measure X because I want Y to be legal". I told them that ballot measure X makes Y illegal, so they should vote No, and asked if they had read their voter guide. They seemed not to comprehend the issue after my attempts to explain it several different ways, and at the end I told them they should probably read their voter guide or refrain from voting.

I have read a couple similar questions on this site asking about voters' general "merits" and voters' general intelligence, and obviously those suffer from the need for everyone to agree upon strict definitions for overly broad and dubious concepts. They are also based on the voter as a person, not the voter's knowledge of a specific issue.

For the purposes of this question, assume that there is one true/false or a/b/c question per ballot measure, verifying a basic understanding of the measure's primary purpose. Assume that the questions are composed by the same parties we already trust to author the official voter guides which are distributed with our sample ballots. Also assume that this verification question is presented through all of the same assistive technologies (audio, braille, etc.) that the rest of the ballot is presented through, so that no group is excluded based on literacy alone, or some other handicap. Could such a step make our voting process better, without devolving into some new method of discrimination?

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    The problem is that like the other questions that you mention, it suffers from the same flaw. What is the basic knowledge? Who is going to teach it? I mean, if there's a good single answer, you usually don't organise a vote for it. If you do, it means that there are different take on the subject. And take a subject like Nuclear Energy. Are you going to teach Quantum Mechanics to make sure everyone understands the subject? But in principle, that's the role of the campaign, to teach you what that is about. Of course, it's not working, either. Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 5:46
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    But how to test if a voter knows the issues ? Take the current (2016) EU referendum in the UK - that issue is so vast I doubt that anyone (experts included) know all the issues. Also, there's a vast amount of unknown in this particular issue as to date, no country has left the EU.
    – Pat Dobson
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 10:15
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    The assumption is simply too unrealistic. Ballot issues tend to be more complex than one could even explain on a ballot...let alone 'test' against.
    – user1530
    Commented Jun 9, 2016 at 16:44
  • @bilbo_pingouin for the purposes of my question, basic knowledge is already defined by trusted parties who write the voter guides distributed by the government to all voters. I have never heard anyone where I live critique these as bias.
    – maurice
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 16:42
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    @maurice because all that would prove is they read 2-6 paragraphs. A lot of ballot measures are complex and often purposefully so.
    – user1530
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 18:29

1 Answer 1


Lets take an example. Ecuador and Argentina approved laws in 2012-2013 controlling what Press is allowed to say. Naturally, many opponent parties alleged those laws involve a huge peril of Censorship. Both government received formal accusations (in the Argentina's case they reached the AFSCA and related organisms) of the law text and/or applications favouring censorship in different ways (sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly via economic support means and licensing).

Assume a country X's governing/official party creates a project like this and a referendum for citizen to vote about it. There will be users supporting it and users against it. The government and other users will be supporting it. Reasons vary.

Now it is time to create the test to tell whether voters actually understand the implications on the law and infer their benefits and caveats.

  • Will be an official organism or a multi party organism composing the test points?
  • Will the test be corrected by a machine or by a human? A machine will be quick answering multiple choices while a human will be slow but answering with semantic and pragmatic analysis what you write on open questions. Will the human reject your right to vote because you inferred the law involved censorship? How will you tell in real time whether your results are right or not?
  • The test will cover the -allegedly- basic points to understand about. Can you foresee whether that is what you need to know about the law? An example is: The mentioned press law in Argentina had more than 150 articles. Only two of them were accused to support direct or indirect censorship. Can you foresee that the test will involve the harsh point you could want to discuss if you were aware of them? Even if you read them at a glance to be ready for the test: Can you be sure that your interpretation is right and the latter judges' interpretations (when applying the law) will be like yours?

Discrimination: It will be, for people with not-so-good memory. Each time you want to filter who can vote, you are discriminating. It is up to you and the public opinion whether that discrimination is acceptable or not.

Better voting process: You will guarantee that people voting most likely read the text.

However ...: Even when this mechanism could be sure you read the law's text (most likely it will!), it will never be sure whether you are a Right-knowing person to fully understand the extent of its application.

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    I think this answer assumes longer, more rigorous (and therefor more subjective and open to bias) test questions than I had imagined, but overall answers my original question.
    – maurice
    Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 16:51
  • Yes. I just stated an example when this would seriously fail despite the basic understanding, to illustrate how the goal would be reached but also be meaningless. Commented Jun 10, 2016 at 17:02

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