The Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits each government in the United States from denying a citizen the right to vote based on that citizen's "race, color, or previous condition of servitude [slavery],"while the Twenty-fourth Amendment prohibits both Congress and the states from conditioning the right to vote in federal elections on payment of a poll tax or other types of tax. Similarly, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibits states from imposing any "voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color."
However, conservative pundit Ann Coulter says, “I think there should be a literacy test and a poll tax for people to vote.” In fact, she believes there should be a poll tax to take the literacy test to vote. What?!
This is not a minority opinion. You hear it all the time among the political snobbery. It takes the form of comments like, “can we get back to the issues” whenever there is a story that offends their collective sensibilities. You can hear it whenever the political snobbery condescends to those voters “who only voted that way because their candidate was black, white, Latin, a woman, a Republican, handsome, or they are communists living on the democratic plantation.” Or make their decisions based on information from political ads, celebrity endorsements and sound bites. If a person can’t get back to the issues or doesn’t want to, do they still have the right to vote?
How many people would vote to deny people the vote because they aren’t knowledgeable on the issues? How many people believe that a registered voter should have to pass a civics exam or a current events test?
The San Francisco Examiner reported that former congressman and presidential candidate Tom Tancredo said in a keynote address he delivered to the first National Tea Party Convention in 2010, “We do not have a civics literacy test before people can vote. People who could not even spell the word ‘vote’ or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House.”
Conservative commentator and political writer Jane Chastain applauded Tancredo’s comments and went one step further. In a commentary found on WorldNet Daily Chastain wrote, “In this country, voting is a lot like Russian roulette or shooting darts, blindfolded.” Referring to the motor-voter bill, Chastain said, “Liberals will not be happy until everyone who can fog a mirror is registered to vote.”
In a CNN column liberal columnist LZ Granderson asked, “should ignorant people be allowed to vote?” He goes on to say, “If we weed out the ignorant voters, politicians will no longer feel the need to dumb down the conversation in hopes of getting their attention.”
Granderson suggested that the Naturalization Test, given to immigrants who want to become citizens should become part of the voter registration process. A survey conducted earlier this year found that 1 in 3 Americans would fail the 10 questions Citizenship test. If you can’t answer basic questions like name your state’s 2 senators or how many stars on the flag or name the three branches of government or whom did America fight for independence, should you be able to vote? To pass the citizenship test you only have to answer correctly 6 out of 10 questions. You can actually fail and still pass the citizenship test. Even with that low bar, the citizenship test would prohibit maybe a 3rd of Americans from voting if it was used as the political literacy test.
Proponents of a political literacy test argue that the Constitution does not explicitly say voting is a federal right. It only lists the reasons why a person cannot be prohibited from voting. The constitution does not prohibit a state from denying the vote for other reasons. In Texas, for example, the mentally incompetent cannot vote. More than 5 million people cannot vote because they are either in prison or are under some form of mandatory criminal supervision.
Anything that seems reminiscent of a literacy test brings to mind the type of discrimination that led to the Voting Rights act in the first place. But Coulter and Granderson aren’t campaigning against stupid people; they are campaigning for an informed citizenry. They rightly point out that if the citizenry were more knowledgeable then we wouldn’t have so many ignorant politicians.
Opponents say any reason to vote is a good reason. They say what’s wrong with voting for the person because you just happen to like that candidate? Or not voting for him because I didn’t like the way he looked on TV?
Sal Gentile found that Jason Brennan, author of The Ethics of Voting disagreed with this notion of voting based on finding something “emotionally appealing.” Gentile says Brennan believes you are “acting unethically if you vote based not on a rational assessment of the facts but for emotional or ideological reasons.”
There doesn’t appear to be a fair and equitable way to ensure that voters are well informed and “up-to-speed” on the issues. How would such a system work? A civics exam may show that a person has basic knowledge of the government and how it works, but it doesn’t mean they are knowledgeable about the issues. Should you have to renew your voting rights the way you renew your drivers’ license? How many issues, how knowledgeable will you have to be in order to pass the political snobbery test? How do you score the political issue IQ?
In the Gentile article, Brennan says “deciding whether you are qualified to vote is a tricky thing.”
This Simpsons clip shows just how difficult or “tricky” it would be to score a person’s political IQ.