BOGUE: Bring back the literacy test

A mandatory test to vote would improve civic engagement and improve the political system

Many politically inclined writers these days—your columnist included—have bemoaned the dearth of political participation in the United States, citing depressingly low voter turn-out rates and a demonstrated lack of interest in political issues that touch on virtually every member of society. From elections as local as who will be on our Honor Committee to those as national as the presidential race, the pattern is familiar: a small minority of citizens are actively engaged, and the rest look on apathetically at best, hostilely at worst. Many Americans today pin their frustrations on Congress when part of the problem is an electorate too lazy or preoccupied to engage each other in substantive political discourse. But today I want to discuss an issue I mentioned only in passing when I last wrote about voter participation, in my March 6th article “Tip the vote over”: ignorant voting. Voting without knowing fully who or what you’re voting for. In that spirit, I want to propose that the U.S. institute a form of nationwide literacy test for federal elections.

Now, literacy tests have a shady history. In the past, such tests were widely used in the south to disenfranchise black voters, using the pretense of encouraging enlightened voting to keep an unpopular minority from expressing a political voice. The tests were often administered by white males who had sole discretion over who passed and who didn’t, and the questions were tailored for each voter. White voters might receive questions concerning the identity of the first American president, while black voters were required to name all county judges in the state. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 officially banned using literary tests—and similar qualifiers—to discriminate between voters on the basis of race or color, and rightfully so. Any test that doesn’t apply equally to all races is a farce. But the misuse of the literacy test in the past should not taint the concept in general. Applied properly, requiring voters to demonstrate knowledge of the candidates and issues—and perhaps United States history as well—could significantly improve the quality of our democracy.

Before we can talk about just how we can “properly apply” a literacy test—and I should admit at the outset that I certainly don’t have all the answers here—we should first acknowledge that such an idea is reasonable at all. Voting has long been conceived as both a right and a responsibility, something that can be deprived of an individual if he or she proves incapable of acting as a member of society. We require immigrants to pass a literacy test in order to become U.S. citizens, and we deprive certain criminals of their right to vote. In Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections (1959), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of requiring all citizens to pass a literacy test before voting, provided that the tests applied to all races equally. While there is a case to be made that citizens should have the absolute freedom to vote however they please, including ignorantly and against their own interests, there is a better case to be made that the marginal freedom given up by requiring literacy tests is more than compensated by the public good that comes from better-educated voters.

What, then, would such a test look like? I propose that it have the following characteristics. First, it should require voters to demonstrate at least a rudimentary knowledge of the platforms of the candidates on the ballot. This could mean matching various fundamental policy positions—on social issues like immigration or economic issues like financial regulation—with the proper candidate. Second, the test should evaluate voters on basic economic knowledge. If taxes are raised or government spending cut, economic growth will likely slow; heavy government borrowing tends to crowd out private investment by raising interest rates; etc. Third, and finally, the test should cover basic American history, with an emphasis on the last fifty years, similar to the citizenship test. Implementing such a test will pose significant challenges, but tackling them will prove fruitful for the American public. The government should freely provide the answers to all the questions online and via an informational brochure—the point of the test is not to assign grades, but to make sure that people know the basics of what they’re doing when they enter the polls. Similarly, voters should be able to take the test indefinitely until they pass. All competitors in the election should agree upon the content and phrasing of the questions before they are published, and experts should ensure that the content is indeed factual and not ideologically contentious. Collecting, evaluating, and recording the results of the tests in order to qualify citizens for voting will inevitably require time and resources.

Despite these costs, the benefits of implementing literacy tests for federal elections—and eventually all elections—will be manifold. Politicians will be held accountable to a sharper, more discerning public. Prevalent misconceptions, which are allowed to proliferate during tightly contested elections, will be dispelled. Voters will be forced to better understand the ramifications of the policies they espouse, especially concerning the economic future of the country. And, perhaps more importantly, the concept of voting as a duty and a responsibility that must be earned will be brought back into focus. It takes work to be a member of a democracy, and too often we forget that simple truth. If we force ourselves to do that work, our communities will be better for it.

Russell Bogue is an Opinion columnist for the Cavalier Daily.

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