Voting and public opinion: What you need to know

philip-cowleyPhilip Cowley is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London, and editor of Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box: 50 things you need to know about British elections. He recently spoke at NCVO’s Campaigning Conference.

Mark Twain once said that ‘If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it at election time’. Not a lot has changed since he wrote that in 1885 – except that the more we learn about elections, the more we realise how right he was. For example:

  • Some voters are so lazy that they can’t even be bothered to read to the bottom of the ballot paper. If you’re going to be an election candidate it is therefore better to be called Bates than Yates. One study of council elections estimates that around 2,000 councillors between 1973 and 2012 were elected as a result of their position on the ballot paper.
  • If you can’t be called Bates, then at least be good-looking. Attractiveness alone successfully predicted the outcome of around three-quarters of seats in 2010 decided by less than five per cent of the vote.
  • Lots of people can’t even remember whether they’ve voted. Not how they voted, just whether they voted. Around one in seven people get this wrong when asked, and it isn’t just the frail nature of our memories – because they’re six times more likely to report false positives (to say they voted when they didn’t) than false negatives.
  • And they claim to have views on entirely fictitious policies. 15% of people reported having a view on the Monetary Control Bill, even though the Monetary Control Bill does not actually exist (men are 50% more likely to profess to holding views on non-existing policies than women, which is one reason why men always score higher in tests of political knowledge than women, because they’re more likely to guess when they don’t know, and some of their guesses will be right).

Facts aren’t always the answer

If you want to get a cheap headline, in your area, commission an opinion poll to test voters’ factual knowledge. The results will horrify you. In 2013, one headline in the Independent read: ‘British public wrong about nearly everything, survey shows’.

But don’t assume that they will change their minds if you just give them the ‘correct’ information. For example, most voters overestimate the amount spent on overseas aid, and their estimates of how much should be spent on overseas aid are in fact often greater than the amount currently spent on it.

This should all be good news for those in favour of overseas aid spending. But even when voters are given information about the amount actually spent, they still wanted to see overseas aid reduced, and to a level below what they had originally said would be their preferred level.

So, detailed information doesn’t always change voters’ views, because voters’ views aren’t some technocratic policy judgement.

The ideal voter vs the real electorate

The ideal voter of democratic theory is supposed to be a rational man or woman, someone who gathers all the evidence about the issues of the day and the plans of the parties, weighs it all up responsibly, cogitating at length, and then delivers a mature and informed judgement at the ballot box.

The public don’t function like that. The public work much more like a thermostat. If I ask you the temperature, you’ll not know. If I ask: is it too hot or too cold, you will know. And you probably know whether it’s been getting hotter or colder recently.

Look at public opinion like that, and you find the public are much more switched on.


NCVO members can buy copies of More Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box at a 40% discount from the publisher using the code ‘MSL40’.

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