Bring Back Literacy Tests
But not in the way you’re thinking.
This post is by contributor Timothy Wood.
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Literacy tests have, to put it mildly, a checkered past, mired in lots of nasty history, wielded as a wicked tool to keep “undesirables” (usually based on their skin color or national origin) away from anything resembling real political power. I get it. But literacy tests might actually be useful — just not for voters.
A quarter of Americans don’t know that the Earth goes around the Sun. Hey, we live in the Land of the Free. You’re perfectly within your rights to memorize the Kardashians by blood type while not understanding basic facts routinely taught to preschoolers, despite having more knowledge in your pocket than is contained in a thousand libraries. Nevertheless, don’t be offended if nobody drops an invite to design a satellite launch — it’s a gig where there’s some required reading. Similarly, only 36% of Americans can name the three branches of government. It’s not a trick question. It’s grade school civics. And this is just remembering the names, not the complicated bits about how any of these things actually function.
Still, voting is sacred. That’s why we did away with literacy tests in the first place. I’ll defer to the opinion of the Supreme Court:
“Undoubtedly, the right of suffrage is a fundamental matter in a free and democratic society. Especially since the right to exercise the franchise in a free and unimpaired manner is preservative of other basic civil and political rights, any alleged infringement of the right of citizens to vote must be carefully and meticulously scrutinized.”
The problem with a dangerously ignorant electorate is obvious, but it must not be addressed by tampering with the franchise. It can, however, be tackled from the opposite end: the ability to run for office. States get a fair bit of leeway in how they run their elections. It’s right there in the Constitution, Article I, Section 4. That’s why every four years you get states like Maine or Nebraska shaded both colors on the map, because they smartly decided to split their electoral votes instead of giving everything to the statewide winner, even if 49.99 percent of the state didn’t vote for them.
The right to run for office isn’t spelled out explicitly in the Constitution. It may be implied by the 14th Amendment, which says everyone gets equal protection under the law unless it is relevant to a legitimate governmental objective. States make all kinds of rules for public office according to this standard. Many have to do with age and residency requirements, but some deal directly with qualifications necessary to do the job. In my state, you can’t be elected Judge or County Attorney without a law degree and two years of practice. You can’t be a Property Valuation Administrator or Surveyor without a certification or license. You can’t be a Court Clerk unless you pass a written exam prepared by the office of the court. Yet in order to be a state legislator, the person who writes the laws, you need only a GED and a pulse, and that’s somehow a higher standard than US Congress, which has only age, residency, and citizenship requirements.
To be clear, I’m not proposing an ideological test. Go right on believing whatever you believe. Reasonable people are perfectly capable of disagreeing with one another on political issues. But perhaps it’s in the public interest to take a little look-see to verify that candidates are aware of the job they’re applying for, and what the government actually does. I’m fully aware of the obvious objection: if you make a test, then the people who design it can game the system. After all, that was the problem with the original literacy tests. If only we had some long-standing metric to determine who gets to hold their head high as a proud American, and not only participate in our democracy, but have the opportunity to lead it… Well, today is your lucky day.
If you want to run for office, then you should have to pass the same civics test we give to immigrants seeking citizenship. You get the answers to all 100 questions right up front, 10 are chosen at random, and you have to answer at least six correctly. If some guy from Kyrgyzstan who speaks English as a third language can pass it, then so can you. If you can’t, then maybe you should sit this one out, because I have a sneaking suspicion that there are at least a few current or prospective members of the government who are going to struggle. I’d say that such folks know who they are, but I’m pretty sure they don’t and that’s the problem.
You know we’re talking about Marjorie Taylor Greene here, but swap in Louie Gohmert, Lauren Boebert, or Herschel Walker if you prefer. I’m not primarily afraid of MTG because of her political ideology. I’m afraid of her because I don’t think she knows how the government works. I’m afraid of her because she has no epistemology, and could not define the term even if her life depended on it. I’m afraid of her because I don’t think she could pass the Billy Madison test. She’s not a person I can even disagree with, because I don’t think she understands her own positions with any more depth than the shallow end of a urine-drenched kiddie pool.
That being said, there are a few kinks in this plan. In the 1969 case Powell v. McCormack, the Supreme Court drew a pretty hard line ruling that the states are not allowed to make qualifications for federal office beyond those enumerated in the Constitution. We’ll call it “implication by consideration.” If you make a rule that says your favorite color can’t be green or blue, then we’re going to assume you also considered yellow, and figured yellow was just fine given that you considered “colors” as a fundamental grouping. Keeping in mind here, with the exception of prohibiting religious tests, the Constitution mostly says who can’t run for office, like people who are too young or haven’t been a citizen for very long.
While the Federal level may be a no-go, we have the glorious states, the laboratories of democracy. It’s much easier to implement this at the state level, and that can make all the difference. State governments are the ones who draw up the electoral maps that populate the House. State office is often the proving ground for budding politicians with their sights set on DC. State governments are also generally subjected to much less scrutiny than the federal government, which means less public oversight and accountability. Local news does what they can with the resources they have, but nobody has any illusions that there are as many eyes on the Tennessee General Assembly as there are on Capitol Hill. Perhaps most importantly, states are one of the avenues to amend the Constitution itself, and our track record on that is less than stellar. We had to repeal one amendment because we screwed it up so badly, and we haven’t passed a new one in more than 40 years, as if the world hasn’t changed since wacky sitcom antics were premised mostly on the fact that cell phones hadn’t been invented.
Overall, the PR here seems to write itself. If someone wants to oppose the measure, then they have to assert stupidity as a right, and they have to admit that they support lawmakers who couldn’t themselves qualify for citizenship outside of the accident of birth. I have sympathy for the Lincoln era, where you walk five miles uphill both ways to borrow a book you read three times. But we live in the information age. If you’re ignorant of the fundamentals of how your country works, then you only have yourself to blame. If you want to be a know-nothing, you can do that. It’s totally cool. There’s nobody here forcing you to memorize traffic laws. But we’re going to give you a little test before we let you legally drive the car.
See also: “Is Our Children Learning?”
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