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Our Debauched Electorate 2

Literacy tests for voters aren't immoral or even illegal if applied fairly.

By Petrarch  |  April 9, 2010

In an era when the ruling Democrats openly claim that they know better how to run your life than you do, when they say that you need to "siddown and shuddup", and that the whole point of their legislative agenda is to "control the people," it's hard not to think of the opinion of William F. Buckley - no commoner he - on the subject of rule by elites:

I'd rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.

Most any conservative will stand up and applaud this sentiment.  After all, the phone directory lists a good cross-section of ordinary people - policemen, grocers, mechanics, housewives, and yes, even the occasional lawyer, almost all of whom have to live in the real world instead of the cloistered heights of an ivory tower.  To ordinary Americans accustomed to ridiculing their "betters" and holding them in disdain, this also has an appeal - after all, is not a founding American principle the idea of everyone's equality?

No.  We are all to be equal before the law, true; a rich man should not be able to get away with murder, and a poor man should not be wrongfully imprisoned because he got in the way of someone powerful.  But we are not all equally successful, equally intelligent, equally wise, equally qualified - or equally entitled to choose our rulers.

As we saw in the first article in this series, many of our political problems today are caused by votes of the utterly unqualified.  Today it seems that the only requirement to be a voter is a pulse - and if you're willing to vote Democrat, not even that.

Our Founders never intended the system to work that way and in the early years of this country it didn't.  We need to be restrictive of the voting right, not simply giving a ballot to anyone who happens by.  The trouble is that, because of America's original sin of slavery, the sound reasoning behind our Founders' early voting restrictions is lost in the morass of racial bias.

Discrimination of the Good Kind

It's often said that the early American voter was "free, white, and 21," in a reference to the prevailing racism of the day that prevented blacks from voting.  This is a fact: early America was, indeed, horribly biased racially and blacks were generally not allowed to vote based purely on the color of their skin.

Let's be crystal clear: this kind of discrimination is wrong, removing these restrictions during the Civil Rights era was right and just, and we should never for a moment consider a return to the days of Jim Crow much less of slavery.

There were, however, other restrictions that had nothing to do with racism, or at least not directly. has an interesting (though not wholly accurate) timeline of voting restrictions over the years.  In 1790, for example:

Only white male adult property-owners have the right to vote.

Not quite - in New Jersey, all property-owners could vote, including blacks and single ladies, but such open-mindedness was pretty rare.

Racial questions aside, what's wrong with restricting the vote to property-owners?  The idea at the time was that, since voting is an expression of who should govern the community, only people with a stake in the community have a natural right to contribute to that decision.

Why should some transient itinerant laborer with no particular "anchor" in this town or that town, or a college student who's going to graduate and leave, have any say about the selectmen or mayor?  A local farmer or merchant, though, with property that is fixed in place and taxed accordingly - now, he should be heard.

What's more, someone with an invested stake is going to consider the issues more wisely.  If you own property that will be taxed, you might want the government to provide more services, but you'll have to consider the increased taxes you personally will be paying to cover the costs.

Is it worth, say, an extra $1000 on your property tax bill to build a fancy new multi-million-dollar high school?  Or would it be better to pay only an extra few hundred and renovate the old one?

The tradeoffs are evident; the decision will be more balanced when it's made by people affected both positively and negatively by the outcome.

It's not really practical for us to return to the days of property-holder requirements.  For one thing, how many of you actually do own property?  Be careful with your answer here: unless it's paid off, you don't really own your home; the bank does.

As far as some sort of net-worth requirement, it's bad enough that we have to tell the government how much we earn every year, do you really want to reveal how much you own?

There is another way, and it's also shown in Infoplease's list at 1890.

Mississippi adopts a literacy test to keep African Americans from voting. Numerous other states-not just in the south-also establish literacy tests. However, the tests also exclude many whites from voting. To get around this, states add grandfather clauses that allow those who could vote before 1870, or their descendants, to vote regardless of literacy or tax qualifications.  [emphasis added]

Again, let's be blunt: the purpose of this test was explicitly racist.  The assumption was that, since blacks are manifestly inferior and stupid, a literacy test will automatically weed them out and allow only their white superiors to vote.

It didn't work the way they'd planned.  To the horror of the racists in charge, there were all too many ignorant white rednecks who couldn't read any better than the supposedly subhuman black sharecroppers.

What was worse, although it's not mentioned here, Booker T. Washington's stalwart efforts at black education produced a growing number of erudite and well-educated blacks who were fully the intellectual equals of any white man.  Hence the need for the unjust grandfather clause which allowed white descendants of antebellum voters to vote regardless of any other technical requirements.

Because of their racist intentions, literacy tests have a bad reputation in America, but that ignores the truth: the literacy tests failed at their racist goal and had to be supplemented by other racist measures like the grandfather clause, intimidation at the polls, and even the KKK.

If your goal is not to discriminate by race but simply to check for a minimum level of competence, what's wrong with a fairly administered literacy test?  How can an illiterate person possibly be sufficiently well informed about the issues, the candidates, and the costs or benefits of the policy proposals to make an informed decision in the voting booth?

The reason Mississippi's literacy test failed in its racist intent - it ruled out too many ignorant whites - is precisely the reason why, left alone and administered fairly, it would have been good for governance.

Scragged's Voter Literacy and Qualification Test

It's hard to come up with an objectively fair test about anything, much less in politics.  Should we refer to "pro-life" or "anti-abortion-rights"?  How about "civil rights for gays" or "special protections for homosexuals"?  We'd never be able to agree on a test with any policy content.

There's another way that's just as good.  Every ballot, by definition, has three items of undisputed fact upon it: the names of the candidates, the offices they seek, and the party they represent.  Most states have a computer where this is all recorded.

How simple it would be for that same computer to spit out, in the privacy of the voting booth, a simple randomly-generated multiple-choice test!  Is John Smith running on this ballot for a) Dogcatcher, b) Town Council, c) Senator, or d) President of the United States?  Is Jane Doe a member of the a) Republican, b) Democratic, c) Independent, or d) Green Party?

A person who isn't able to answer eight out of ten such questions is either not sufficiently well informed about the election or is not sufficiently competent in the English language as to have informed themselves.  Either way, they can't have an opinion worth expressing, so the voting machine should reject their vote.

It doesn't matter what their race, creed, origin, or anything else might be.  This sort of test is directly relevant, easily made, and inherently unbiased.  If you try to vote and can't pass the test, maybe you'll pay more attention during the next campaign season.

With every right comes a responsibility.  With the right to vote comes the responsibility to be a halfway informed voter, and not to force everyone else to suffer under the results of your lazy ignorance.

America urgently needs an unbiased, non-lifelong, clear and fair way to weed out the ignorant voter while encouraging potential voters to educate themselves; our Voter Literacy and Qualification Test would address this problem.

All by itself, this one change would go a long way to addressing our electoral problems, but it's not enough, because ignorance and apathy is not the only serious problem debauching our electorate.  In the next article in this series, we'll address the inherent bias of government benefits.