August 1, 2007

The Only Test Should Be Citizenship

Jonah Goldberg has a good sense of humor, and it comes across in his posts at The Corner, which tend to display his wry wit. That's why, when I read his column for yesterday's Los Angeles Times, I suspected he may have been kidding about competency tests for voting. If not, then Jonah has forgotten some painful civil-rights history:

Can you name all three branches of government? Can you name even one? Do you know who your congressman is? Your senators? Do you even know how many senators each state gets? If you know the answers to these questions (and you probably do because you're a newspaper reader), you're in the minority.

In fact, the data have long been settled. A very high percentage of the U.S. electorate isn't very well qualified to vote, if by "qualified" you mean having a basic understanding of our government, its functions and its challenges. Almost half of the American public doesn't know that each state gets two senators. More than two-thirds can't explain the gist of what the Food and Drug Administration does.

Well, so far, so good. Jonah's point isn't that Americans are stupid, but that they are ignorant by choice about politics. Despite having instilled a love of democracy as a secular religious belief, the truth is that Americans don't go to the Church of Democracy as often as they could. They find politics boring, especially what the FDA does with its time -- until a medicine starts killing people, of course -- and consider politicians all alike.

Jonah also does a good job of skewering the notion that everyone should vote. In the first place, it wouldn't make that much difference. If one samples 50% of a population in a survey, the chances are that the other 50% will produce similar results -- and if that weren't true, then pollsters would be out of a job. Everyone should take more of an interest in self-government, inform themselves, and then vote, but as Jonah points out, they should follow that process in that order.

However, nothing should stop them from being able to cast that vote if they want, and this is where Jonah goes wrong. He suggests that states set up a comprehension test for the right to the franchise:

Instead of making it easier to vote, maybe we should be making it harder. Why not test people about the basic functions of government? Immigrants have to pass a test to vote; why not all citizens?

A voting test would point the arrow of civic engagement up, instead of down, sending the signal that becoming an informed citizen is a valued accomplishment. And if that's not a good enough reason, maybe this is: If you threaten to take the vote away from the certifiably uninformed, voter turnout will almost certainly get a boost.

The answer to that is that we've done that in the past. In the wake of Reconstruction, several Southern states, with at least the acquiescence of the North, imposed "educational" requirements along with poll taxes to disenfranchise free blacks. Advocates of these policies argued that citizens should have to demonstrate literacy and a clear comprehension of the state constitution and government. In reality, both were used to deny blacks access to the ballot box, thanks to very flexible standards of what constituted a clear comprehension of the issues.

That doesn't mean that Jonah wants that used for the same purpose now. However, when government has the power to license the vote, it ceases being a right for citizens. When those in power decide to do evil, they can manipulate that licensing authority to strengthen their grip on power, and the citizens no longer have any means to purge them from office.

It's an idea that sounds good on the surface, but has terrible consequences. Even if Jonah wrote this with tongue in cheek, others have offered it seriously. It's an idea that shouldn't be lightly tossed aside -- it should be thrown out with great force (apologies to Dorothy Parker).


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Comments (27)

Posted by TheHat | August 1, 2007 6:51 AM

"terrible consequences" -- Oh yes. Consider being a Consecrative in an area dominated by Liberals. No matter how you answer the questions, you will fail the test. I will not give any more power to political officials. If I have the ability, I'd take most of it back from them!

Posted by Teresa | August 1, 2007 7:00 AM

Amen Captain!

Posted by rbj | August 1, 2007 7:14 AM

What needs to happen is to have better education. Instead of trying to teach our kids "self esteem" we should be teaching them about our government.

Posted by zigguratV | August 1, 2007 7:20 AM

I can understand where he's coming from, but it's an awful idea.

Can you think of a greater outrage than a US taxpayer being told he can't vote?

Posted by kg2v | August 1, 2007 7:34 AM

"Can you think of a greater outrage than a US taxpayer being told he can't vote?"

Which often leads to the poll tax idea - you can only vote if you pay taxes...

Posted by TW | August 1, 2007 7:52 AM

I'm in favor of a competency test to run for office. And some continuing education.

Posted by Mike | August 1, 2007 7:53 AM

The key is the in the title - the only test should be citizenship. Unfortunately, we don't seem to be able to enforce even this simple test.

Oh, and you should be a real, live person (re: ACORN).

And you shouldn't vote in two places for the same office.

Posted by tnmartin | August 1, 2007 8:25 AM

At the risk of being thought an awful person, I'm not sure Jonah is wrong on this.
If you'll recall, in the early days of the Republic (it's not and has never been a democracy), the vote was by and large restricted to property owners, those who had a stake in the community. And in those days, we elected to the Presidency people like Washington, Jefferson, and Adams. Since then, we've extended it to just about any warm body, and we've gotten clowns like Clinton and JFK. This is progress?
By the way, tourists and visitors pay sales taxes at least, should we then extend the franchise to them since they are taxpayers?
I know personally of one election in a small town in NE Ohio where, using 'instant registration', racketeers literally *bussed in* transients who stayed overnight in a hotel, registered and voted the next day, and were gone by nightfall. Would refusing this egregious fraud have led to charges of voter disenfranchisement?

Posted by zigguratV | August 1, 2007 8:45 AM


There were some empty suit presidents in the early stages of our country. There's a whole litany of presidents nobody remembers because they did so little.

An American citizen who pays taxes has a right to say where his country is going. I don't like the idea of somebody paying taxes being told that he's smart enough to earn money to pay taxes, but too stupid to vote based on some arbitrary and highly political test.

Tourists and travellers vote in their home states if they are American citizens. The idea that "taxation without representation" is bad not a new concept.

Posted by k2aggie07 | August 1, 2007 8:51 AM

So ziggurat, you think all who pay taxes should vote. Should people who don't pay federal income taxes not be allowed to vote? After all, why should they have their hands in my cookie jar?

Posted by Paul A'Barge | August 1, 2007 9:25 AM

We make these blighters take tests before they can become citizens, don't we? Why don't we stop these tests lest these tests interfere with the rights of those who say they want to become Americans.

Why don't we expect everyone wanting to enter the USA to be tested about American values and American customs?

I think Goldberg is right. If voting tests were applied to everyone, the tests would not be tools used against some groups.

By the way, there are some groups that would on a percentage basis flunk any decent test about America. And you could count on the NAACP to be in front of the effort to keep one of these groups from having to demonstrate a minimum of proficiency before being allowed to vote.

Posted by Scott | August 1, 2007 9:28 AM

I don't agree with restrictions on citizens' voting rights.

However - I want a national policy that says you have to prove citizenship to register to vote and produce current, valid photo ID every time you vote.

Here in San Francisco where I work, we see "activists" registering people to vote in housing projects. Almost none of these people vote, so "activists" show up and vote for them.

The same "activists" sign up "homeless" people and then go vote for them. Since there is no requirement for ID, no one can stop this.

Illegal aliens are registered and they vote. No one checks to see if they are citizens.

Where I work, in the welfare department, our staff is required by federal law to offer voting registration to welfare clients. They must offer this EVEN WHEN THE CLIENT IS AN ILLEGAL ALIENS AND OUR STAFF KNOW THIS TO BE A FACT. Our "official" policy is that the city will "verify" citizenship. Sure. Right. This is a gross violation of citizens' rights but no one will do anything about it.

It's an outrage. The Democrats know very well that with voter ID requirements they will lose a lot of elections, especially at the local level.

Posted by craig | August 1, 2007 9:29 AM

I assume, then, that the Captain thinks we should grant voting rights to convicted felons. (A few states don't even allow excons to vote.)

If we have ever in the history of this republic allowed all citizens (let alone everyone who pays taxes, which is a much broader class) to vote, then I'm not aware of the time.

I would have no problem with Jonah's suggestion if the test were objectively verifiable, related to the basic workings of government, and evenly applied. But having said that, what I would rather see is allowing anyone to vote, but forcing them to know the names of the candidates they wish to elect rather than doing it by multiple choice.

Posted by zigguratV | August 1, 2007 9:44 AM

"So ziggurat, you think all who pay taxes should vote. Should people who don't pay federal income taxes not be allowed to vote? After all, why should they have their hands in my cookie jar?"

I would be fine with that, although that is a matter of debate.

But my point and concern is more to protect the rights of American taxpayers to vote, which this test would challenge.

Let's just make this statement again: American citizens who pay taxes should be guaranteed a right to vote, without needing to pass some government test. Everyone who has a stake in this country -and pays for it- has a right to say where it goes. If you are taxed, you get represented. No conditions, no need to pass a 'trust us, it'll be fair' test.

People seem to be exaggerating my comment to mean that a tourist from Germany who buys an item with sales tax should have the right to vote. That's absurd.

Posted by Pho | August 1, 2007 9:56 AM

At the risk of quoting "the great scholar" Chris Rock...

I don't agree with it, and I wouldn't do it... but... I understand it.

Posted by arch | August 1, 2007 9:57 AM

Two linked problems - public education & voter fraud

If any graduate of an American public high school knows the basics of our government, he has probably read it on his own.

Very soon, I predict the American public will demand a national ID card. All my 64 years, I have carried a military ID. I was a dependent, a misdhipman, an officer and now a retired officer. No harm ever came to me because of it (the ID Card). My state drivers license has my picture on it. Like many others, I also have a US Passport. What is wrong with the government knowing who its citizens are and enforcing immigration and voter registration laws?

Posted by roc ingersol | August 1, 2007 10:09 AM

A test sure would prevent the Left from exchanging cigarettes for votes. Also If testing is out of the question at least we should require a show of effort on part of the citizen to register instead of a system that allows you to register your dog with no problem.

Posted by BoWowBoy | August 1, 2007 11:18 AM

Captain ..............if your point is that our system of government .............should "fail safe" .............a citizens right to cast a valid ballot .................I will disagree with you.

Maybe we should not make it harder for citizens to vote .......... but .......... at the same time .................. we should not go out of our way to take away a citizens right (as in the Florida Presidential election ............... as pleaded in the courts for by I. Gore ) spoil a ballot on their own.

There has to be a modicum of intelligence and discipline ........... in voting in this country. I believe this to be Jonah's point matter how many times the issue is decided .......... by the ACLU and the civil rights crowd.

Posted by GeorgeH | August 1, 2007 11:29 AM

I do believe in restrictions. The founders never intended universal suffrage and I think it will be our ruination.
I believe voting should be limited to citizens who are property owners, taxpayers and able to pass a high school civics final.

Posted by msr | August 1, 2007 11:32 AM

How about implementing Robert Heinlein's voting qualifications as laid out in "Starship Troopers"? You could only get the vote by being an honorably discharged veteran - and enlistment was "for the duration." That'd eliminate the "chickenhawk" talk.

Of course, I'd lose my right to vote, but now I mostly feel that I'm voting to offset some cretin.

Posted by KW64 | August 1, 2007 11:51 AM

The point of democracy is not to create the best government but to provide an alternative to civil war. Thus anyone who could physically or fiscally support rebellion or could persuade others to should be offered the franchise in exchange for his acceptance of the ballot box as the vehicle for change rather than a box of bullets.

This description of who should be offered the frachise covers almost everyone except the insane and the imprisoned who are theorectically, already ineligble.

Posted by Okonkolo | August 1, 2007 2:54 PM

well said, captain

Posted by Wayne | August 1, 2007 5:03 PM

How about this: you should have to take a competency test to vote UNLESS you are a veteran.

I'd prefer only veterans being allowed to vote period but I'm not likely to acheive that drea,.

Posted by Dave Kibler | August 1, 2007 5:37 PM

Of course we should restrict the ability to vote. The more allowed the worse the potential outcome. We should use all measures possible to hold the voting population down. There is no provision in any of the founding documents about a "right to vote". It does not exist. We started out as a republic and seem to have ended up as a populist democracy without even changing the constitution.

Posted by Dave Kibler | August 1, 2007 5:39 PM

Of course we should restrict the ability to vote. The more allowed the worse the potential outcome. We should use all measures possible to hold the voting population down. There is no provision in any of the founding documents about a "right to vote". It does not exist. We started out as a republic and seem to have ended up as a populist democracy without even changing the constitution.

Posted by Dave Kibler | August 1, 2007 5:43 PM

Sorry about the double post.

Posted by Hank Brown | August 1, 2007 7:41 PM

I think that you should have a High School Diploma before you can vote. This has multiple advantages:
- puts real value into getting a diploma
- weeds out people too stupid or lazy to vote correctly (see 2000 election in Florida for example)