OK, I can hear some of you already: “That Ben Paine, he is totally off his rocker; his idea is bad enough, but publishing it is a sure sign of really losing it!”
OK, what’s it all about?
Democracy! And who has the right to vote.
You have heard me say that a democracy is the ONLY way to go; any other form of government – oligarchy (rule by a few) or monarchy (rule by one) – is a form of tyranny, because no matter how benevolent they may be, they are NOT self-rule, they are NOT We the People ruling ourselves. And you have heard me say that everyone should exercise his right to vote, it is his civic duty, it is the least he can do! But I’d like to impose some conditions on a citizen’s right to vote. Just to make things interesting.
Another fatal flaw of democracy (really, a fatal flaw of universal suffrage, which see) is ignorance. There are many kinds of voters: “I am a one-issue voter.” “I want to elect a man who makes me feel comfortable, a man who I’d invite over for a barbecue.” “I would never vote for an atheist or a Mormon or a Jew.” “I don’t honestly know how my candidate feels about war and peace, but I trust him to do the right thing.” All of these folks have a Constitutional right to vote; but their uninformed vote cancels my humongously-well-informed vote. Is that fair? Is that how we want our democracy to work? Shouldn’t a voter take responsibility for what he is doing? Don’t rights always impose responsibilities on the citizen? Isn’t responsibility the other side of the freedom coin?
But that is how our democracy does work right now (putting aside that other huge problem: the influence of Big Money in politics), and it is not working. How many Americans vote for one party solely because they believe that the Bible says the Earth is only 10,000 years old and the Bible is the word of God? Or because they want the government to supply a safety net for them when they are unemployed. I can hear you mutter, “you want to disenfranchise religious people, evangelical people” or “you want to make it hard on poor people.” No way. I don’t care what people think about religion or how the economy works, but I do care what people know about our country: our founding documents, our governmental institutions, and our national history. Immigrants who struggled to get to this country for a better life all aspired to become citizens. And in order to become citizens, they had to learn stuff about our country: our founding documents, our governmental institutions, and our national history. Never in the history of our great nation have I ever heard a would-be citizen complain about that requirement!
But native-born American citizens need not know as much about our country: our founding documents, our governmental institutions, and our national history! And I protest: if would-be citizens must know this stuff in order to become citizens – and specifically in order to VOTE – why shouldn’t native-born Americans have to know this stuff too in order to vote?
“Because it is discriminatory to demand that, it is unconstitutional!”
No, it is not: demanding that all Americans know about our country: our founding documents, our governmental institutions, and our national history is neither discriminatory nor is it unconstitutional!
OK, that’s easy. In 1959, in a Supreme Court case called Lassiter v. Northampton County Board of Elections, in a case that contested a North Carolina county’s power to require voters to be able to read and write any section of the state’s constitution, literacy – the ability to read and write – was ruled a legitimate requirement for the right to vote. The Court decided this case 9 – 0.* The reason why the literacy requirement was not discriminatory was that this test was given to every prospective voter – black, white, brown or blue. “Discrimination” typically discriminates between people based on inborn characteristics (like sex and race, or wealth or social standing of the family you were born into). No one is born literate; we all have to learn literacy. And, because it did not discriminate, it was Constitutional. And, yes, it would have disenfranchised a small number of citizens who had not learned to read.
“OK, but Lassiter was just about reading and writing, man; what you are asking is different.”
How different is it? If the ability to read has any meaning at all in regard to voting, must not the ability to read have some kind of reading matter in mind? Like our founding documents, our governmental institutions, and our national history! The law that Lassiter tested quite specifically required the ability to read North Carolina’s state constitution. Is it really a stretch to require that a citizen who wants to vote can read (and understand) the U.S. Constitution? And really, if your neighbor – a citizen who was born in Sweden who earned his citizenship, who earned the right to vote – if he had to know about our country: our founding documents, our governmental institutions, and our national history, why shouldn’t you – who was born here – have to know as much? Is that too much to ask? Can we ask less?
And I am not proposing some test with tricky questions; let us all have to pass the same test that your Swedish-American recent-citizen-neighbor had to pass, the Citizenship test that is administered by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). He is read ten random questions out of a pool of 100 standardized questions, and he has to answer only six correctly to win his citizenship. Does that sound like a heavy burden to you? Indeed, if you are a native-born American who is old enough to vote, you should be ashamed if you cannot pass this Citizenship test with nine correct answers out of a possible ten.
“OK, fine. I get where you are coming from, that it is better to have an educated man vote than someone who is not educated. But aren’t you forgetting that immortal phrase, ‘all men are created equal’? Thomas Jefferson, a hero of yours, said that. It meant equal before the law, but surely suffrage – the right to vote – would be included under that umbrella.”
Quite right. But consider, “all men” who could vote back in 1788 (the first national election) were 1) white 2) Protestant 3) land-owning 4) men. It took a long time before black men were included under that umbrella, and it took 132 years for women to be included. So, even the meaning of “all men” evolved over time. And, the same Thomas Jefferson, a few decades later, also said: “if a nation expects to be ignorant & free, in a state of civilisation, it expects what never was & never will be.” So much for having Thomas Jefferson take your side of the argument!
“OK, fine. You said up top that you wanted everyone to vote. This idea of yours will prevent millions of citizens from voting!”
Are you so sure? With no requirements whatever, with both parties offering to drive you to the polls, just 50% of eligible voters exercise their right to vote in a Presidential election year and under 40% of eligible voters turn out in off-years. With no impediments whatever! Thomas Paine said: “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: ‘Tis dearness only that gives everything its value.” The right to vote has heretofore been obtained too cheap, no price at all; put a price on it, demand an effort from everyone who wants that prize, and watch its value soar. Really! Make the right to vote a prize that they have to work for, not a right that they can take for granted, and watch what happens. We really don’t know; but I would be willing to wager that voter participation will increase year after year after year.
And the level of political discourse will begin a long climb, as politicians will no longer be talking to ignorant voters who believe anything that the politicians say.
No, I do not want to keep citizens from voting, I do not want to make it harder to vote; I want to make voters more responsible and more knowledgeable. Is that an unworthy goal? Won’t this plan work? What do you think?
“I think that you convinced me. But it seems to me that the same logic that would favor an informed man over an uninformed man should also favor a better informed man over a barely informed man.”
Good thinking! See below.
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Here are the details of my proposal to test our citizens for their right to vote.
- Three sets of 100 questions each about our country: our founding documents, our governmental institutions, and our national history (with as many as ten questions in each set about our contemporary political world) will be created and maintained by the federal government. The first set of 100 questions is already created and maintained by the USCIS. The second set of 100 questions will be maintained by the Federal Election Commission (FEC); they will be created by twenty American History college professors who will self-select for the unpaid job; these questions will be patterned after the basic citizenship questions, but they will be just a little bit harder. They will be the result of unanimous selection by the twenty professors. The same professors will also create a third set of 100 questions that will be more difficult still. New sets of FEC questions will be generated at the same time as the USCIS does theirs.
- The questions and their answers will be available online at the USCIS web site (the first 100) and the FEC web site (the second 100). The web sites of EVERY federal government agency will prominently display a link to the two sets of questions on their home-pages. It ought to be disgustingly simple to find all the questions and their answers. Paper copies of the first and second 100 questions and their answers will be available at EVERY federal and state and local government office building across the land (e.g., City Hall, Social Security, IRS, Motor Vehicle). The third set of 100 questions and answers will be kept secret.
- Any citizen may take the test at any time. The results of the test will be good for a ten-year (twenty-year?) period, after which he must re-test. He may also re-test for any reason (typically to do better), or no reason, six months after the last time he took the test, as often as he likes, and the last score will be the one that counts.
- The Pass-Fail test will consist of ten randomly chosen questions from the first set of 100 questions, and the Pass will be seven or more correct answers (a naturalized citizen only needs six to pass). If a citizen fails the test, he will be able to re-test in six months. Given the easy availability of the questions and their answers, there are very few good reasons for anyone to fail the test.
- The citizen who correctly answers eighteen out of twenty questions where the second set of ten questions will be randomly chosen from the second set of 100 questions, will have his vote count as two (2) votes.
- The citizen who achieves the two (2) vote multiple will be able to test for a three (3) vote multiple by additionally answering correctly nine out of ten questions from the third set of 100 questions.
When it comes to voting, knowing stuff about your country – a real measure of your patriotism – will count for something. No longer will willful ignorance be rewarded. Thomas Jefferson would have approved!
“And if this idea accomplishes what you wish, what will it have accomplished?”
A nation of high voter participation, with every voter achieving a three vote multiple (which is the same as everyone having one vote), with every voter proudly knowing much more about his country than he knows now. And a nation where politicians no longer talk down to us and no longer lie to us, because they can’t get away with it anymore. That is my wish, that is victory!
* One would imagine that the appellant, a black woman named Louise Lassiter, would have attracted liberal support and that the county’s position was a conservative one. Indeed. But the Court that held 9-0 in favor of the county was a liberal court, the Warren Court, and the majority opinion was written by William O. Douglas, arguably the most liberal justice ever to serve on the Supreme Court.