Monday 6 June 2016

Voting as an IQ test


This morning I voted by post in the Referendum election. At least, that was my intention. Instead, I may have sent myself a stamped addressed envelope with my ballot inside it, which will arrive back home through the post in a few days time.

Leaving aside for a moment the psychological and quasi-intellectual reasons for the way I voted in terms of Remaining or Leaving the European Union, I’d like to discuss the way I voted in terms of the intellectual process of filling in the forms correctly, and placing them in the correct envelopes. As you know, I find these tasks difficult.

First, a confession. At a previous election I filled in the forms without looking at the instructions (instructions are for wimps) and had already half torn up the many redundant forms and envelopes before I realised that the process had been so badly designed that doing it my intended intuitive, logical way would lead to my ballot paper being rejected. I had to read the instructions several times, then sticky tape together a discarded envelope and get everything into the absurd but required format so I could post it off properly.

The ballot paper comes with a set of instructions written on one side of a ballot sized white paper, and further written instructions and diagrams on the other  side. Also in the pack is an envelope A and and envelope B, and also a double folded ballot sized page with a Postal Voting Statement and a Ballot Paper. These last two are joined together, but must be torn asunder, so it seems, if I can understand the instructions.


I have a high regard for the mental abilities of my readers, and assume that you have been following all this carefully. What I have to do is to fill in the Postal Voting Statement (not shown), which is quite easy, because it requires only the filling in of one’s date of birth, and a signature. The attached bottom part is the Ballot Paper (not shown), and that too is very simple, in that it requires simply a cross next to Remain or Leave.

There is a tendency, task completed, to put the folded page into any one of the envelopes with the correct address showing, and send the whole thing off. Error. For no stated reason, the ballot paper has to be put into Envelope A with no address showing, and the Postal Voting Statement into Envelope B together with Envelope A, with the electoral office address showing. This is very odd, because one perfectly good envelope is being put into another envelope, when it is clear that one would be enough.

Call me pedantic, or merely stupid, but the instructions do not make it clear why I am going through this palaver. I want to use a postal ballot because I want to stick my vote in an envelope, because I may not be able to get to the physical voting place on the particular date of the election. Simplicity is what I am after.

How does envelope A relate to envelope B? Why must I detach two related pages which make more sense stuck together, exactly as received, since it says who I am and what my vote is? Why am I given two pages of instructions just to put a piece of paper in an envelope?  Furthermore, why does my vote require steps A, B, C, D and how do these steps relate to Envelopes A and B? Could the steps be 1, 2, 3, 4 and the envelopes C and D? Furthermore, admiring Edward Tufte as I do, shouldn’t I look at the instructions in the light of his dictum “For non-data-ink, less is more” and re-write the whole damn thing?

Here is my attempt. The key is to describe the postal voting process in terms of voting in person. Voters receive a Poll Card sent to them by post. On election day they go to the polling station, usually taking their Poll Card with them. (If they forget their Poll Card they give their names and addresses to the electoral officers). Their names are ticked off the electoral list and they are given their Ballot Paper which they mark in secret and put into a ballot box. In this way their vote is secret, but the fact that they voted is vetted by the electoral officers, who check that they are allowed to vote, and vote only once.

The postal vote instructions should follow the same sequence and nomenclature. The envelopes should be called Ballot Box and Returning Envelope respectively. The Ballot Paper and the Ballot Box envelope should be the same colour, say brown. The Returning Letter and the Returning Envelope should be the same colour, say white.

Then the instructions are simple: Mark your cross on the Ballot Paper and put it into the Ballot Box envelope and seal it. Put that envelope into the Returning Envelope with your Returning Letter with the electoral address showing, seal it and post it.

There will be a few bits and pieces to add, but these need to be kept very short.

I predict that making these changes would reduce errors in postal votes, and would reduce the number of postal voters requiring help from others to fill in their forms, a step might leave them open to undue influence and corruption. Voting is an IQ test, and the postal vote process requires a higher IQ than voting in person. I would estimate that understanding these instructions requires an intelligence of roughly IQ 100  thus effectively disenfranchising 50% of the general population, and 84% of any population with an average intelligence of IQ 85.  Perhaps setting the pass mark at IQ 100 is too harsh. Perhaps IQ 90 would be enough, in which case 75% of the general population can vote, though 25% cannot do the task without help. In the low ability group of average IQ 85 37% will be able to vote on their own, 63% will fail, or require help.

A very good study of the ability to use in person automated voting systems in the US was conducted by La Griffe du Lion in January 2001, who showed that the intellectual demands of particular voting systems selectively disenfranchised low ability citizens. This was the famous “dangling chad” episode which paralyzed the presidential electoral process. La Griffe used the method of thresholds to calculate the IQ required for every in-person voting system.

I would need to see the actual requirements of the most difficult system to use, the Sequoia Pacific in order to compare it with the Postal Voting system I received. The language in the postal voting instructions is reasonably easy, so it should be readable, though the instructions are very long, and as discussed lack any explanatory logic. It is hard to be sure what level is required for the postal ballot, but it seems a harder task than voting in person, mostly because of the confusion about envelopes. On the other hand, the instructions have a good picture of a post box, so that is a help.

Of course, all this raises moral and political issues. On the basis of one-person-one-vote, then all voting systems should be capable of being used by even the dullest citizens. Complicated systems are unfair.  Conversely, it could be argued that if a citizen cannot understand a relatively simple voting system then they cannot understand the greater complexity of governance, and should be kept away from decision-making about policy, simply as a prudent precaution in the national interest, and certainly in their own interest, given their diminished responsibility. Complicated systems serve as a discreet check on the incompetent, and are effective political quality control mechanisms for the greater good.

On reflection, perhaps my well meaning attempt to simplify postal voting will lead to the political triumph of the dull. I leave it up to you whether you circulate these calculations to the general public.

Vote early, vote often.




  1. I have a solution notable for its simplicity and elegance. I give my beloved a proxy vote on my behalf, so she trots along to the Polling Station and votes for both of us.

    Actually, what drives me up the wall with instructions is how routinely badly written they are. When I was young I found I had a knack for writing them. It was soon necessary to disguise the knack because otherwise my time would have been swallowed up entirely by writing instructions that should have been written by other people.

    It's rather like completing a questionnaire. My favoured reply is "I reject your premises."

  2. elijahlarmstrong7 June 2016 at 15:30

    Is there data on voting failures by IQ? The NALS is the closest thing I know of, but it is a test setting, not an "ecological" situation.

  3. Had the Democrats in Florida been smarter or made simpler ballots, the outcome of the 2000 presidential election would have been different.

    Their core constituents could not complete the "butterfly" ballots made by their own party.


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