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Bring back literacy tests

By Michael M. Bates
web posted July 24, 2006

Arizonans will have a chance in November to approve a proposal that would award a cool million dollars to one voter, chosen by lottery, after each general election. The idea is to encourage civic participation. The idea is preposterous.

The mainstream media and other professional do-gooders regularly harp on the theme of everyone being better served if only more citizens would exercise the franchise. I think the problem is we already have too many people voting, including individuals who don't have a clue as to what's going on in this world.

Rather than wailing and gnashing our teeth over low turnout, we should be relieved. A certain percentage of our fellow citizens, not knowing or not caring about public policy matters, have munificently rescued the rest of us from what would have been an ill-informed decision at best.

One survey commissioned by the National Constitution Center found that over half the people participating didn't know how many U.S. Senators there are or how long a congressional term is. One-third couldn't name a single branch of government. Almost a quarter couldn't name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment.

These results came from a sampling of typical Americans. Well over half of those polled either have some college or are college graduates.

A decade ago, the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University examined public awareness of political matters. Two-thirds of those questioned couldn't name their own congressman. Half didn't know whether their own congressman was a Democrat or a Republican.

Nearly half didn't know the Supreme Court has ultimate responsibility for determining the constitutionality of a law. Almost 60 percent of those interviewed believed the U.S. spends more on foreign aid than on Medicare. At the time, expenditures for Medicare were about six times the amount expended for foreign aid.

The situation's not improved. Last year there was much press coverage on the health of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and its impact on the judiciary. Yet 20 percent of Americans asked said they'd "never heard of" the man who had been on the nation's highest tribunal for more than thirty years.

With voter consciousness at such a low level, it's little wonder we're doing such a lousy job of electing our representatives.
I think what we need to do is require potential voters to pass a political literacy test. That way, there will be at least a possibility that their ballot will be an informed one.

Literacy tests understandably have a bad reputation. They and other devices were used to keep blacks from voting. Extremely difficult questions, name all the state's county judges, for example, were included to make certain that few people passed.

Political literacy tests don't need to be structured that way. They could include very basic questions such as how many years a president's term is, how much - within a trillion dollars - does the federal government spend each year, and who is the governor of the state. If voters can't even identify their own state capitol, why should they decide who represents them there?

Another feature of the new and improved literacy test would be that everyone would have to take it to establish eligibility. Unlike the old laws used in some Southern states, there would be no "grandfathering" permitting selected folks to slide by without passing the exam.

I realize that this could prove an embarrassment for some politicians. They might be running for an office and not be able to vote for themselves.

This proposal isn't made in a partisan manner. Yes, at least initially Republican voters will perform substantially better than Democratic ones on the test, but with a little studying they might be able to catch up. Naturally, once they start paying attention, they might well vote differently but that's a jeopardy both parties would confront.

It's no coincidence that the leaders of the Arizona initiative to place each general election voter into a lottery are Democrats. It's been said, with some truth, that lotteries are a tax on the stupid. No doubt there is considerable crossover between people attracted to lotteries and folks with little public policy awareness.

So let's have political literacy tests. In the meantime, I have a request for those who can't name a single branch of government or have little knowledge or interest in such matters. On Election Day, please stay home and just watch Maury or Oprah or Jerry or whomever instead of voting.

It's your patriotic duty.

Mike Bates is the author of Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths. This column by Michael M. Bates appeared in the July 20, 2006 Oak Lawn Reporter.


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