SPINKS: Leaving some behind
A voter literacy test would have negative effects on the voting population
Two weeks ago, my fellow Opinion columnist Russell Bogue wrote an article arguing that the government should bring back literacy tests as part of our voting procedure in the United States. Bogue’s column became the target of criticism from a variety of sources, ranging from U.Va. alumni to our public editor Christopher Broom. Bogue then wrote a follow-up column, published last week, which attempted to address some of our readers’ concerns. But I still think he missed the reason why so many people responded negatively in the first place. He failed to realize the most troublesome and fundamentally offensive aspect of his column, which our public editor came closest to articulating by saying: “Bogue betrays a lack of understanding of the history of the place from which he’s writing. And the privilege those of us with access to an excellent education enjoy.”
I would like to make a few arguments in response to Bogue, but my principal contention is this: Bogue wrote from a place of extreme racial, gender and socioeconomic privilege, a perspective that many of us here at the University enjoy. As a white male attending a prestigious institution of higher learning, Bogue can write cavalierly (no pun intended) about implementing hypothetical literacy tests. But his suggestions, however theoretical, remain offensive because of the historical baggage attached to them and their potential practical ramifications.
In his first column, Bogue explains away the oppressive history of literacy tests by saying that while the history of the tests may be “shady,” we should not let the concept of literacy tests be “tainted.” He assures his audience that his replacement tests would “apply equally to all races,” but that standard is simply impossible to achieve, as history will tell us. Inherently the administration of a literacy test would put groups that are already marginalized in our country at risk of losing their voice in government. Specifically, the tests would disadvantage the poor and people who live in urban (often poverty-stricken) neighborhoods. Again, it may be difficult to understand this when you are not a member of a historically or currently oppressed group, but many people do not have access to cars, the Internet, television or even free time in which to study for or take such a test, because they are too busy trying to support their families at a minimum-wage job. We all have active lives to which voting may pose a slight inconvenience, but implementing a literacy test would undeniably present a greater obstacle for certain groups over others.
Bogue’s proposal to test voters only on the most important and “rudimentary” aspects of history, politics and economics was teeming with condescension. We need not digress into the quasi-philosophical argument about which political and economic facts are actually “objective,” but the point remains that many people in this country have not had access to the type of education that Bogue has enjoyed. This is not an ad hominem attack — given that Bogue is a student at the University of Virginia, he has been exposed to more academic material than many people will see in a lifetime. It is his failure to appreciate and acknowledge this fact that made his original column particularly lacking and unpersuasive.
Bogue goes further in trying to assure his audience of the fairness of his test, saying that people who failed the test would have the opportunity to retake it as many times as necessary until they passed. But being able to take the test indefinitely does not erase the indignity of having to take the test at all. All American people, but especially those who belong to a historically oppressed demographic group, should and likely would be hurt by having to take a literacy test prior to voting. I agree with Bogue that voting is a “duty and a responsibility,” but it is one that American citizens are given and entrusted with, not one that they should have to earn or prove they deserve. To be able to vote and voice your opinion in an election is one of our fundamental political rights. We should not have to fight for it.
I understand Bogue’s frustration with ill-informed voting and voter apathy. I too have written about these problems in the past. But if you don’t want to silence voices, you have to accept ignorant voting as part of the process. Everyone has the right to express their views, however ill-founded they may be. Creating a literacy test would only alienate more voters, thus worsening our already shamefully low voter turnout statistics. Those who currently do not vote still won’t, those who vote occasionally will stop voting because of the additional hassle, and our voting pool will become even less representative, with only the most motivated (and likely extremist) camps being represented.
Bogue’s proposal is saturated with a type of elitism that points to the class- and race-based divides that hinder Americans from relating to each other constructively. Although I’m sure his proposal was not made with the intent of malice or snobbery, in execution it could prove both malicious and elitist by disenfranchising thousands of voters. Other solutions, such as well-regulated political advertising, greater accessibility to the candidates and their platforms, and better political science education in schools would more readily solve the problems that Bogue seeks to address.
Ashley Spinks is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Mondays.