John Stossel recently took a break from denying global warming and encouraging you to marry your cousin in order to air a 20/20 segment that questioned whether young people are smart enough to vote. He went around asking people what the Bill of Rights were and held up pictures of people like Ruth Bader Ginsberg to see if voters could identify them.
Trick or Vote and The Bus Project responded with a hilarious parody video (below) saying, hey, old people are stupid too. Also, old people come with additional drawbacks, such as being bad drivers and being a little bit racist. One thing is certain: If our country depends on the knowledge of random people in the street, Jay Leno’s in-depth research indicates we are all screwed.
But this whole approach begs the question: What knowledge should a person have in order to vote responsibly? Does mistaking Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Sandra Day O’Connor mean you would be unable to identify the candidate that agrees with your pro-choice or pro-life stance? Should not knowing exactly what the Bill of Rights is exclude you from voting to stop our government from torturing prisoners of war?
If I were to create criteria for who shouldn’t vote (let’s say a test of some kind, perhaps of voting literacy), I wouldn’t fill it with trivia about how textbooks say the government is supposed to work. My criterion would be simple: Are you able to separate simple fact from ideological propaganda? For instance, answering yes to any of these questions would disqualify someone from voting:
• Was Saddam Hussein responsible for 9/11?
• Is Barack Obama a Muslim?
• Did dinosaurs and people live at same time?
• Did the Alaska Troopergate report clear Sarah Palin of ethical wrongdoing?
I realize that last one would disqualify Sarah Palin herself from voting, but that’s the beauty of such a test – it is democratic in its insistence that facts matter. I also realize that the test is biased against Republicans, since these are things Republicans are known to say on occasion. However, I can’t think of equivalent falsehoods from Democrats, so help me out here.
Unfortunately, a test like this has a few problems. The first is that it would be illegal, and not just in a wiretapping, we’ll-just-find-Justice-Department-lawyers-to-approve-it sort of way. There are amendments and landmark laws backing this one up, which were needed because our country has such a long history of voter disenfranchisement. After all, the only people allowed to vote at the beginning were white, male, non-Catholic landowners. We eventually included everyone, but as late as 1965 we still had those pesky black-only literacy tests. In fact, you can test yourself to see if you would be allowed to vote as a black person in 1965 by taking the Alabama Literacy Test on-line. I’d study up on your old high school civics textbook first, though.
The second problem is that even if we came up with a simple test that ensured that a voter was capable of engaging in basic reason, it wouldn’t matter, because the next election cycle the test would be taken over by whoever is in power. Then you’d get questions that insist that Obama is a Muslim, Saddam was responsible for 9/11, and so on and so forth. It’s like demanding school prayer, and then being upset when the teacher requires the kids to pray to Zoroaster. It all depends on who is in charge.
Perhaps we should go the other way, like in Australia, and require everyone by law to vote. This would guarantee that the government represents the will of the people, even if the will of the people is to have a president who they’d like to have a beer with, rather than one who is competent. At least we would always get the exact government we deserve. A scary thought, to be sure, but one that might encourage citizens to take education funding more seriously.
In the end, there’s probably not much we can do about voter ignorance. It’s a problem, but not as big of a problem as voter wrong-headedness. After all, the problem with Bush and Cheney is not that they weren’t aware of the Bill of Rights. It’s that they didn’t agree with much of it, like many of their supporters. I would prefer random voter ignorance to intentional constitutional subterfuge any day.