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.


5 thoughts on “Idiots Who Vote

  1. I’ve always wondered if having some sort of requirements for voting would be good idea. However, as you said, the era of Jim Crow has certainly put the idea in a bad light. The biggest concern would be that it would be easy to abuse. I can see one party write the tests such that members of the other party are more likely to fail. Maybe a national standard would be in order; something similar to the test taken by immigrants to be come citizens?

  2. People who can’t read must still be allowed to vote because without their vote the electorate is denied the voice of the uneducated. It is critically important that the uneducated be given as loud a voice as the educated, because silencing them will make for lopsided policies that take no account of those who are economically most vulnerable.

    Requiring people to prove that they can read newspapers is a half-step away from requiring that they *do* read them, and that is the stuff of totalitarianism.

    Further, if we are to deny the illiterate and semi-literate the vote, we are required by the principles of democracy not to tax them, as taxation without representation has long been considered a hallmark of tyrrany. And even if such an enlightenedly fascistic policy were to gain traction (which I hope it would not), I doubt we would find in America the political will to exempt people from paying their taxes because they’re illiterate.

    The remedy for illiteracy and stupidity is to foster a culture of wisdom and education; not to deny the uneducated from access to politics.


    1. As I said, it’s a question that can be debated. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. And of course it’s an idle question, because there’s no political will in this country to require anything of the sort.

      I would note, however, that you seem to be assuming that those who are ignorant will nevertheless understand and vote for policies that are in their own best interest economically. That is, you’re assuming that ignorant people won’t be swayed by demagogues into voting for measures that are to their own detriment. This is demonstrably false.

      I frankly don’t understand what’s totalitarian about demanding that people read newspapers. That seems a very mild form of totalitarianism at worst.

      The fact that taxation without representation has long been considered a hallmark of tyranny (which I’ll grant) doesn’t mean that the question is settled. It can be widely considered to be such a hallmark without actually being one, if you see what I mean.

      If you know how to foster a culture of wisdom and education, Conrad, I would urge you to get started without delay. My musing on this subject was motivated by despair. I just don’t think we’ll ever see that sort of culture. Not in this country, at any rate. Possibly in Scandinavia.

      In any case, I’m not proposing to deny anyone access to politics! I’m simply suggesting that if they want access, they ought to be required to show that they’re serious about it, and are prepared to educate themselves on the pressing issues of the day to an extent that will allow them to vote in a well-considered manner.

      1. I frankly don’t understand what’s totalitarian about demanding that people read newspapers…

        Which newspapers?

        Surely you won’t be satisfied with _The National Enquirer_, which carries us vital news about the Loch Ness Monster being caught off the coast of Hawaii, or that allows us to follow the life of Bat Boy.

        No, there are some newspapers that will satisfy the requirement and others that will not. The government will need to review and certify newspapers, to ensure we have separated the wheat from the chaff.

        Then, there is the question of how we will know that people are reading their assigned news. And not just reading it, humming their way through, but comprehending it accurately. Perhaps we can put little quizzes on the back of our citizens’ yearly voter registration cards. We can mail them out in bulk. It will be very convenient.

        …you seem to be assuming that those who are ignorant will nevertheless understand and vote for policies that are in their own best interest economically.

        No, I don’t. But the fact is that a free people will not always choose to do what others consider to be in their best interests. That’s how freedom works.


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