BOGUE: The duties of citizenship
Clearing the air on the literacy test
Last Thursday, I wrote a column entitled “Bring back the literacy test” in which I argued for instituting a sort of test that all adult voters would have to pass in order to participate in federal elections. It is clear from the comments I’ve received and the conversations I’ve had that what I proposed deserved more explanation — and qualification — than what I had been allowed in an 800-word column.
Understandably, proposing any type of voting test is controversial because of America’s history of using such measures to disenfranchise minorities. As I mentioned in my column, any test that doesn’t apply equally to all races is unconstitutional, as it should be. The goal of what I propose is not to keep some segment of the population from voting but to require a minimum threshold of knowledge about basic topics in American government and about the broad policy platforms of those running for office. A far more comprehensive test is administered to any immigrant who wishes to apply for U.S. citizenship. Why, then, do we balk at applying similar standards to those of us born here?
I argue that the standards of citizenship — and hence voting — should be the same. We should all view it as a responsibility, a duty, and not simply a free gift that we lazily accept whenever it suits us. Requiring some demonstration of competency in these areas is not some ill-conceived ploy to keep people from voting, but rather an attempt to improve the quality of our democracy.
Moreover, the type of “literacy test” I propose is truly not a test at all. While I admit that it is difficult to ascertain what topics should be on the test other than those mentioned above, I am firm in my belief that the answers to the test should be freely and widely available, even as citizens take the test. The questions, therefore, would serve not as a barrier to voting but as a simple assurance that all citizens had read the information provided or could otherwise determine the answers. Voters should be able to retake the test as often as necessary. Substantial efforts should be made online, in community centers, via mail and at the voting centers to make sure that the tests and answer booklets are freely available. Under such conditions, claims that the test is aimed at disenfranchising one group over another are overblown. The only barriers to voting would be low interest and low energy. Those who possess either will opt not to take the test.
How do we combat voter apathy, then, if we make it more of a chore to vote? Won’t a test make it worse? The answer is undeniably yes, unless we couple the institution of a “literacy test” with other efforts to incentivize voting. One popular way is to offer tax breaks to those who vote in federal elections each year. Aligning personal interest with elections is a powerful way to increase voter participation while underscoring the message that voting is a serious civic responsibility with personal impact.
Second, what becomes of illiterate voters? This is, of course, a tricky issue, but one I believe is relatively minor: according to the CIA World Fact Book, 99 percent of Americans are literate, defined as age 15 years or older and able to read and write. Even if this number is optimistic, the fact remains that illiterate voters are a vanishingly small portion of the voting population. However, for those citizens who are illiterate and wish to vote, I would argue that the test and answer booklet should be available in audio format.
Third, the point was raised that many voters are not policy voters and should therefore not be required to know the policy positions of the candidates before voting. I would argue that it is perfectly acceptable to cast your vote based on personal preference — or feelings of trust — for one candidate over another. However, requiring you to know the basic policies of the candidates involved is not unreasonable. Candidates run on policy platforms; they are often defined by the campaign promises they keep and break while in office. Requiring voters to know just what the candidate they’re voting for has promised to do in office will help dispel misconceptions while ensuring that voters aren’t inadvertently voting for someone who represents an idea antithetical to their own values. At the end of the day, the voter is still free to vote however he or she wishes.
Finally, I must take issue with the prevalent notion that any type of voting test must necessarily disadvantage minorities, as has been said. Just because these tests were used to do so in the past does not mean that there is no feasible way of implementing them fairly in the future. Claiming outright that any idea to implement a type of literacy test is foolish, poorly thought-out, or “despicably ignorant” unfairly and unwisely dismisses a potentially viable option for improving the quality of our political involvement. I will not argue that a literacy test is the only means of cultivating a better-informed public, nor will I argue that it is necessarily the best means. Ultimately, a better-educated citizenry should arise via our public schools. My intention was and is simply to explore it as an avenue we could take, something that has been abused in the past but could be beneficial in the future. I feel we do ourselves a disservice if we refuse to consider all possibilities for improving our civic participation.
Russell Bogue is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily.