The practice of using literacy tests to qualify (or, more likely, disqualify) voters got a very bad name in the United States during the years (roughly from the 1870s through the 1960s) when such tests were used to deny the vote to African-Americans. From what I’ve read, even quite well-educated black people generally failed the tests (which were, of course, administered by whites), while white people who could barely write their names were routinely judged literate.
My goodness, do we not want to go back there!
If, however, a literacy test could be administered in a truly color-blind way, with the results tabulated by judges who did not know the race (nor the political affiliations) of the person being tested, would it be desirable, as a matter of public policy, to require that those who are to vote in elections be able to demonstrate not only basic literacy but a basic understanding of the world in which we live? This is a question that I think can legitimately be debated.
If you’re going to cast a vote on matters that affect fiscal policy, shouldn’t you be required to demonstrate that you know how to balance a checkbook? That you understand the manner in which interest on a loan is compounded?
If you’re going to cast a vote on matters that affect foreign policy, shouldn’t you be required to demonstrate that you know the names and locations of, perhaps, twenty prominent foreign nations, the names of the languages spoken there, and the names of the current leaders of those nations?
If you’re going to cast a vote on matters that affect the environment, shouldn’t you be required to demonstrate that you know a bit about water circulation, toxins, microbes, and the role of the oceans in the life cycle of the planet?
Shouldn’t everyone who aspires to have an opinion about public policy (starting with newspaper reporters) be required to demonstrate an understanding of statistics? The science of statistics matters. The “statistics” reported in most newspaper stories are meaningless. They’re gibberish. Why? Because the reporters, even if they understand statistics themselves, know perfectly well that their readers don’t understand statistics and don’t see why they need to. As a result, the level of alarmist misinformation being spread around is just staggering.
And if you’re going to cast a vote on any matter at all, shouldn’t you be required to show that you can read a newspaper and understand the content of newspaper stories? Not only that, but if you’re going to vote in the United States, would it be too much to ask that you demonstrate your ability to read and write English? Personally, I don’t care what your ethnicity is, or your religion, or your ancestral customs (though in the customs department, I suppose I’d draw the line somewhere this side of clitoridectomy). But I do think that the ability to read and write English should be a requirement of citizenship — or, if not of citizenship, at least of enfranchisement.
Requiring a literacy test would not, of course, remove all sources of bad judgment in the electorate. From time to time, horribly damaging mistakes would still be made. But at least they wouldn’t be stupid mistakes.
Beyond that, I expect, the overall rate of literacy in this country would rise dramatically. People who at present seem to muddle through an unexamined life, practicing and perfecting their witless knee-jerk reactions, would have, perhaps for the first time, an incentive to buckle down and learn to think.
Most important, the demagogues who, at present, prey on the body politic by stuffing the brains of the uneducated with malicious lies would be deprived of their audience. They could rant all they want — freedom of speech is a wonderful thing — but a lot more people would be able to see through them. Their influence would shrink.
This consideration applies, I think, whether you happen personally to be on the left or the right. I see most of the vicious demagoguery these days coming from the right — but even if you’re convinced it’s coming from the left, you don’t have to feel threatened by the idea of literacy testing. Surely if the bar is raised, it will reduce demagoguery at both ends of the political spectrum. It will elevate the debate on every topic of concern.
It might be objected that people have an inherent right to vote on issues that affect them. But is this truly the case? Do we let children vote about whether they’ll be allowed to run out in the street? Clearly not. Children don’t have enough information, or enough judgment, to be trusted with this decision. The decision is placed in the hands of those who know more.
Nobody is allowed to drive a motor vehicle in this country unless they pass a test. Why? Because you can kill people with a motor vehicle. But you can kill people with a ballot, just as surely. Vote to cut the budget that provides shelters for battered women, and you’re going to kill some of them. That’s a simple fact. Before you’re allowed to cast such a vote, shouldn’t you at least be required to demonstrate that you understand the consequences?
Think about it.