Should political literacy be required in order to vote?

During the 2000 Election, Matt Stone and Trey Parker were asked to make a South Park style cartoon advertisement for MTV as part of their Rock-the-Vote/Choose-or-Lose/etc. voter registration drive- basically “let’s make voting look hip and cool”. Stone and Parker refused, their logic being that people who register to vote because a cartoon on MTV makes it look hip and cool should stay home instead because they’re way too ignorant (not their exact words, which included expletives).

Totally different subject: My father and mother, both of them white middle class Alabamians, registered to vote in the 1940s and 1950s respectively. For both of them the literacy test was- literally- signing their names to a form saying they were literate. (When my father registered he had to fill out the registrar’s portion of the paperwork because the registrar couldn’t spell Stephen.)
At the same time black people who registered to vote in the exact same place might be asked “what is the tax on a $5,000 piece of property if the MIL rate of 237 1/2 mils with an exemption for the first 25%- you can’t use pencil and paper”, and if they happened to answer that then they’d go onto the next question (“Recite the 4th Amendment and identify three Supreme Court cases that have dealt with it…” or something similar).

The reason I mention the first anecdote is that I’m totally with Parker and Stone. I honestly don’t believe everybody should vote, and that especially goes for the easily influenced or the spectacularly uninformed. I’ve made no secret of the fact I’m supporting Obama this election, but my opinions on voting rights really isn’t partisan: as idiotic as I think people who believe Obama’s a Muslim are or people who think there truly was a link twixt Saddam Hussein and al-Quaeda, I get just as irritated by people who are voting for Obama because he’s black/young/charismatic but couldn’t begin to tell you where he stands on a particular MAJOR issue (I know some college students who honestly can’t tell you which party he’s with… but they’re gonna vote for him!)

Anecdotal but true: a friend of mine manages a home for mentally retarded adults in metro Atlanta. Last week he was instructed to take three of the residents to register to vote. He honestly thought his boss was making a joke: one of the residents has the mental age of 5 (though woe be unto anyone who mentions “mental age” to the management- they literally don’t allow that term to be spoken) and another is so severely autistic that he calls most people Danny and rarely speaks other than to ask for something to eat or drink [and has also been known to drink cleaning supplies], but they are now registered to vote. Per my friend, neither one has the faintest idea who is running, when the election is, what the parties are, or even the slightest interest in going to the polls.

The reason I mention the tale about my parents going to register in the 40s/50s (the Golden Era per some) is that I’m well aware there’s a history of using literacy testing and other supposedly equitably distributed requirements to deliberately disenfranchise groups of voters. This is why for the most part they were done away with along with poll tax and (going back further) property ownership as requirements.

However, I feel the baby may have been thrown out with the bathwater and some political literacy litmus should be required for the right to vote. I don’t believe it should be partisan, I don’t believe it should even necessarily pertain to the issues of a specific election, but I do think that a form test (or series of, each asking about the same questions) should be required for everybody registering to vote. It should ask such things as “which of these powers does the legislative/executive/judicial branch have/not have?” or T/F questions about checks and balances (nothing super obscure even) and very basic history questions, even super basic “for how long does a Senator serve?” type stuff. I honestly think there are millions and millions of voters in most elections who’d be unable to pass basic political literacy.

Your opinion- should testing be mandatory for voter registration?

Oh, I don’t see how that would ever be abused or anything.

If it were objective and straightforward and the same to everybody, it shouldn’t be any more abused than a driving permit test or citizenship test.

It is tempting but I am too tied to the idea of one vote per person. In the long run, I think the current system is best, but I do cringe at the recent abuses of absentee ballots where residents with dementia and advanced senility or metal retardation are being “helped” to vote.

I guess that is still better than dead people voting. :smiley:

I really like the idea of getting more young people out to vote and interested in voting. Encourage that and encourage their educating themselves on the issues. I think Matt and Trey may have missed the big picture for the short term view.

BTW: Is your parents story exaggerated at all. I knew it was bad, but I did not realize it was that awful.


So if the questions are general, how much would this reduce the participation of people who think Obama is a Muslim, as you complained about previously?

Although I will grant that, unlike your parents’ time, such a scheme wouldn’t be QUITE as automatically discriminatory against the poor, what with better communications and knowledge gathering media like the Internet available. But I’m still uncomfortable with it.

ETA: Oh, and who would check up to make sure that even the smallest rural areas were using the “right” test, and that it was administered fairly, and not some made-up questions guaranteed to turn away, say, blacks? If the questions repeat, what’s to keep someone from just learning certain answers, or finding out from friends which particular ones were being asked at a particular polling place? IOW, how confident are you that the resultant voters would be people who truly were informed?

So who gets to write the test? That’s a ridiculous comparison to a drivers test, by the way. What you need to know and be able to do on a driving test is pretty cut and dried. Look at the SAT, ACT, and IQ tests to see how a “straightforward” test can be skewed to favor certain people.

It can never be objective and straightforward and the same to everybody, not in a country where the SATs are considered culturally biased for including an analogy using the word “regatta” in the past (among other famous examples).

The test would have to resemble Hop on Pop for everybody to be happy, and that kind of negates the point, doesn’t it?


What does it matter if I know the difference between the judicial and legislative branches if I do know that I don’t want sales tax to go up another penny/dollar or do know that I do want my library open more than 3 days a week and am willing to pay for it? Why is my voting on that issue tied to knowledge that is in only indirectly relevant to it?

I’m not willing to silence people on not knowing civics, even basic civics. I am willing to withhold a high school diploma - but not their vote.

While I understand the temptation, like a lot of similar ideas it’s both too prone to abuse and unlikely to be administered fairly even with good intentions. So no, I oppose the idea.

The problem is that in a representative democracy, there is no “objective.” If 90% of the population decides tomorrow that stupid is a desirable characteristic, you and I are screwed (I hope, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.) We’re just betting that won’t happen. Or, more charitably, we’re betting that if it does, they’re right.

One person one vote, and hope for the best.

Because you’d know that the guy you’re supporting for Senator can’t do either one, regardless of what he tells you.

Frankly, this is the biggest problem I would foresee. We’d ultimately have “T OR F: The president of the United States has the power to break any law he wishes so long as it is a Monday” and the people who miss it would sue claiming that it wasn’t clear T or F stood for True/False when they could just as easily have stood for “Tina or Frank- which Sinatra said this?” and thus the question is misleading to begin with.

(The regatta example is infuriating: I’ve never witnessed/participated in/or been the least interested in boating races but I know the word; saying it’s culturally biased is only true if ignorance is a culture.)

ETA: The regatta comment is about the example Airman Doors used and not a slam against him (who I am guessing feels similarly about it).

I agree with you and the Southpark guys. It’s kind of insance that we take such an important decision and let ignoramuses have a say. It’s as absurd as having the people from the mental facility vote. The problem will be in crafting something that would satisfy the naysayers. I know you intend for this to be non-partisan, but the push-back will come from the left.

I do absolutely feel the same way, yet it is absolutely true that white males answered the comparison correctly with far more frequency than African-Americans did. Not to hijack this into an education thread, but there is a serious disconnect between what probably should be common knowledge and what people actually know. That’s why your testing scheme would not pass scrutiny.

Considering that the Right will want to include people who think that the Bible should be made the law of the land, Constitution or not, I seriously doubt that.

I’ve got an idea, let’s just put a group of smart people in charge and let them make all the decisions without having to consult with the unwashed masses. Don’t worry, they are looking out for your interests for you! All this voting and campaigning just slows thing down and gums up the works. A benevolent leader could handle it all.

I agree completely, and I agree to go first as Benevolent Oligarch. I’ll appoint the other members of the oligarchy.

One need hardly be a supporter of autocracy to question the wisdom of complete suffrage. John Adams, for instance- very much afraid of “the Mob”, and many of the other founders expressed serious doubts as to whether the nation (at that time only 5% of whom could vote) would ever be informed enough to decide wisely.

I agree completely that this is the kind of idea the John Adams would love. Thomas Paine might disagree. Really though, you have to decide how important the idea of a representative democracy is to you. It sucks, but we have to accept that the idiot down the street has just as much right to voice his opinion as anyone else. Once you start restricting that, you’ve basically given the ok to the idea that some people just aren’t good enough to have a vote. I hate to use a slippery slope argument, but that’s kind of a big precedent to set, and one that opens up a lot of possibilities, few of which are good.

What do you think our current administration might have done with such power? God knows they’ve never bent the rules or overstepped their bounds, I’m sure they wouldn’t have tried to use this rule to their advantage.

I don’t see how it would help in any way whatsoever in a 2 party system like we have. Theres usually only 2(real) choices for most elected positions, pubs and dems, and for most people, its a no brainer to pick the person closest in political views to their own.

When you really only have one choice anyway, whats the point of political literacy?
Though I would be in favor of getting rid of the ‘Vote all one party!’ tabs on ballots, as well as removing every scrap of information that could identify a person as one party or another. If people want to vote, they should at the very least learn the names of who they are voting for.

Don’t you have initiatives on your ballot that are just about a tax increases? Or just about changing the name of the county? Or just about which road project they want to support? I do not believe that a person needs to know anything about civics to be able to vote on those types of questions.

Or are you proposing separating out the ballot so that you only get to vote on certain issues after you’ve passed certain tests?

And do you really think that local governments who can often barely tell who is and is not eligible to vote are going to be successful at saying “well, Mr. Sampiro, you’ve passed tests for ballots A, B, D, and F, but the answer to question 3 on was ‘Marbury v. Madison’ so, you will not be voting on ballot C or E until you show a better understanding of judicial review.” and not screw it up?

I’ve only seen that on TV. It just seems odd that you wouldn’t at least have to take the time to make every single choice to say that’s what you really want.

Fuck that. As much as I might bitch about the stupidity and/or herdlike behavior of the American voting public, fuck that. To the extent that one is legally culpable for their actions or is otherwise subject to the decisions of policy-makers, s/he should have a say in the election process.

In my mind, the only major consideration to take into account is coercion. So long as one is able to cast their ballot unassisted*, let them do so, and let us all live with the consequences.

Oh, and this is not a “left” issue, magellan01. If anything, it should be wholly and completely within the domain of an honest and upright right-winger’s purview – for what could be more vital to each and every one of us than to have our say in self-determination?

*Yes, I realize there are complexities I’m glossing over, such as language barriers, physical incapacitation, etc. But so strongly do I reject the idea, so abhorrent do I find it, that I’ll sacrifice any sense of nuance for borderline hyperbole.