Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The Uninformed Electorate

Jonah Goldberg’s op-ed in today’s LA Times about the merits (or not) of requiring tests for voting reminds me of a great story from graduate school. I was in a (required) class that was known to be less than serious. The professor was a nice enough sort, but known also to be a bit obsessed with what one might call "social justice" causes and all perceived inequalities in American life. During the first week of class we were asked to take a lengthy multiple choice test on the United States Constitution. Most of us passed it (after all, we were graduate students in politics) but it was no cake walk. It was quite detailed and covered parts of the Constitution that one is not likely to commit to memory for the simple reason that it’s easy enough to look it up.

When it was finished, the results tabulated, and a few red faces peppered the room, the professor announced that this had been a poll test used in the south during Jim Crow. We were supposed to be horrified, of course. Indeed, it certainly was over the top in and of itself and--when applied, as it was, to only one race--it was quite obviously a work of injustice. Yet, it was difficult to resist laughter when the only black student in the room--a gentleman from Uganda (if I recall correctly)--raised his hand and asked indignantly what was wrong with this professor. Didn’t he think Americans should be able to answer these questions about their own constitution? Did he think there was something inherently inferior about blacks to make their answering these questions impossible? Every American should be required to take this test before he could vote, this man proclaimed with barely concealed contempt. It was clear that he thought the professor and most of us native-borns were too soft to deserve democracy. And, indeed, in discussion after class he confirmed this suspicion.

Jonah doesn’t quite go that far in this article, but he raises some interesting questions. Ultimately, however, I think I am still against tests for voting. I am, of course, in favor of working to assure that the electorate possesses the knowledge to pass such tests--but I guess there’s just something in me that wants to flip the proverbial bird at anyone from the government presuming to ask me to prove myself worthy. Moreover, I am afraid of the way things would turn out if we were to be governed only by the sheepish people who showed up willingly to get in line for such a test. I’ll take the salt of a little stupidity over that dreary prospect any day!

Discussions - 25 Comments

I'm sympathetic to Goldberg's argument (which is not new for him), but I agree with you that on balance, given the problems and implications of it, I'd rather not have it.

Plus, knowing the answers to those kinds of questions does not necessarily mean the voter, come election day, will use rational thinking in his or her choice. More likely they're rely on some sense or gut-feel about the candidates. Ultimately I think it comes down to a sense of trust, particularly at the level of presidential politics. Al Gore should have won in 2000 walking away, but emerged from the cloud of distrust over Clinton, and provided his own reasons for us not to trust him.

Republicans lost big in the 2006 elections over trust.

I'll bet not 1 person in 500 knows what a cloture vote is. I'm not entirely certain I could explain it.

The bottom line is that 95% of the country doesn't deserve to vote. Only by divine (yes I'm serious) intervention is our world kept from chaos. We hang over a cliff, but God somehow changes enough of our foolishness into good to keep earth livable.

On the note of how stupid voters are, I was reading the New Republic today on the appeal of Fred Thompson. In sum, he's big, talks manly, smokes cigars, and just seems really cool and folksy. Yes, apparently that make him Presidential timber.

Regardless, here's another prayer that what we mean for ill will somehow work out for good.

It certainly can't hurt to have a little divine intervention in our system of government, but there may be a more tangible solution in educating voters. It is certainly true that Americans in the late 18th century were more informed of the Constitution than we are today. The Constitution was new and uncertain. Every action the government took was a precedent. So, news about the government and the Constituion was exciting to people. Over time, that excitement would wane because things just stayed constant. The sectional crisis of the early and mid 19th century certainly peaked people's interest, but then it waned again until the dreaded Progressive Era changed the way government functioned. The point here is, what does the electorate have to look forward to when they read the news? It has been the same political jargon for years. It is the partisan rhetoric that bores people. Americans aren't any less capable of making a good choice today compared to 200 years ago. The electorate needs something more than what they are currently getting.

I find Pelosi entertaining and Hilary is good for a few laughs but that is all they are good for. If I was reading a book about them I don't know if it would be worth turning the page. So, when a charasmatic figure (Thompson) comes on the seen at least that is someting for the electorate to consider. Even Obama is something new. New isn't always good!

I am all for improving civic education and am trying to do my part. A well-educated republic is something to strive toward, but is it something necessary to have good government? There are many intelligent people that vote for a candidate simply because they just like the guy. The candidate may remind them of a friend or relative. Do they have to have a profound reason for casting a vote? There are constitutional methods to rid ourselves of catastrophic selections, so leave the poll tests as grad school experiments.

It has long been an article of faith among conservatives that the franchise should be restricted, not expanded. I see no problem with a test for voting as long as you could somehow ensure the test was not biased (a tall order in this day and age).

I am with Julie's Ugandan. If you cannot be bothered to know the essentials of your government, you ought not have the right to participate. If the Jim Crow test was written to ensure that blacks could not vote, then that was a rotten test. Yet, voting is a privilege of citizenship in a democratic republic. I begin to think that we ought ALL to have to qualify for citizenship before we have a right to participate in matters that effect the nation. This would not have to be a one-time test, but could be taken as often as desired or required for the person who truly wished to be made a citizen. If we vote, then we are part of governance, especially in those states like mine that have intiative petitions and referenda. Some minimum understanding of basic civics is not too much to ask of those who govern a people, and as voters, that is what we do.

The majority of the electorate is informed. That is to say that the majority of those who show up to vote know who they want to vote for and why. On the other hand a large percentage of the un-electorate are blissfully uninformed/indifferent. They believe that a vote here or there isn't going to change much. And they are probably right. It is rather like going to a school board meeting... some parents want more public goods...others are quite vocal against the new levy or think that a one dime increase in school lunches will be too much. I think that by and large it is a sign of health when fewer people attend school board meetings...when fewer people bother to vote. This is because being involved and informed has an opportunity cost. The more people that desire to be involved and informed in politics the more the politics of that country/state/municipality/school have failled to properly allocate resources. Politics is about victimhood and misalocation...politicians tell us either how bad things are or how good they could be.

The Un-electorate are those who are indifferent to the cattle calls of the left and right. They don't bother voting because things aren't bad enough yet, and if they were bad enough they would be better served by voting with their feet.

The State of the American Union is good. The Litmus test is the number of people that wish to enter the country. The health of any municipality is based not upon the number of mobilized picketers or activists citizens but on the whole by the opposite, Tyranny and an informed electorate are compliments. Iraqi citizens will always outvote americans, and those from Uganda will always wonder why americans don't bother voting. Population shifts towards areas that are well governed and away from those areas that are not. People vote all the time. People vote with dollars and feet...the Unelectorate votes as much as the electorate, I just wish that the more educated among the electorate would realize this.

America is the land of the free not because we can vote once every 4, 2 or 6 years...but because we can vote as consumers and producers, as entrepreneurs, laborers and capitalists and we can vote on certain things at certain intervals(depending on our fixed costs)Some things we vote on daily other things we vote upon at longer intervals.


I am somewhat is jest...but not entirely. I think that the following could be corrolated. Population growth and good government. Increased "civic-participation" and bad government. Decreased "civic-participation" and good government.

If politicians were angels no one would bother to vote.

If school districts were perfect no one would show up to complain.

If no crimes were commited then jury duty would cease.

In Econ speak those things that shift the demand curve for participation in government to the the right(increase) are primarily negative. In this model the supply curve would essentially be the number of people willing to participate.

The worse things get the more people will participate and keep themselves informed politically.

Thus I conclude that we should all be thankfull for a slightly uninformed electorate and a large Un-electorate, because in a busy modern world among high paid working folk being informed has a high opportunity cost.

-John Lewis.

There are too many problems with qualified citizenship.



How would people learn the material? Granted, high schools teach it now (and government classes would probably quickly become "what to know to pass the citizenship test" classes), but what about people who dropped out? Would they have to pay to take a class? Would they have to get time off work? Gee . . . I wonder what party would benefit from that?



Would this be a written test? An oral test? Personally, I think it's great some people who can't read or who don't care about politics (or pay attention to current events) vote. If you make everyone pass a test then you've just alienated some people of our society who might not be able to read or who are just too apathetic to study for something like that, even if they would normally vote. I don't think that's right. People shouldn't be shut out of voting just because they don't want (or have the time to) find the answers to some of our basic, most fundamentally constitutional questions.



And would this test need to be taken before each election? What if I just learned everything I needed to know the night before, passed the test, and then forgot it all and didn't pay any attention to any issues or politicians for any election after that. Wouldn't that kind of defeat the purpose?



People should be aware of their government, its history, and its constitutional premises (be they right or not). That doesn't mean it should be a requirement to vote. Everyone has a basic knowledge of civics: they participate in some kind of community (or at least have to deal with one) every single day. For me, that's enough to allow current Americans a vote.

placing barriers to entry in the form of a poll test will simply increase the opportunity cost of voting and cause a rightward shift in the supply curve for participation. Ceterus Paribus, fewer people will participate at the same level of corruption/misalocation. This leads us to better quality (or more opionated/interested) particiapation, while decreasing the overall level of participation.

If the overall goal is to increase both the quantity and the quality of participation...then we should enact a citizenship/voting test concurently with an increase in bad government, misallocation and corruption. Suppose we invade Mexico+Canada, institute a draft, Nationalize the Fortune 500, and make DUI punishable by the death penalty, while concurently establishing a poll test... we can be sure to achieve our goal: A larger better informed and more active Citizenry.

God Bless the USA!

"Civic Health" and high voter turnout occur as a reaction to and cure for Bad Government. "Civic Apathy" and low voter turnout occur as a result of Good Government.

Apathy is a good thing...or more correctly Apathy is the result of a good/easy thing. If you never need to rebuild your engine, or replace your transmission, this is the result of a well built car, it may lead to ignorance of the mechanics underlying your vehicle...but knowledge of the mechanics of your vehicle is either the result of a deffect therein, your occupation, or an irrational pre-ocupation, or a hobby. In a garden of Eden world, none would have aquired the knowledge doctors today have. A simple knowledge is good apathy or indifference is bad perspective/pursuation fails to take into account the reasons why someone would acquire knowledge or take action in the first place. Sometimes I just want to drink a glass of water...should I be well informed or indifferent concerning the lead levels in my water table? Should I know that Dasani is bottled by Coke and is just expensive tap water? What do I really need to know or not need to know to "rationally" undertake activity X?

The more indifferent/apathetic/ignorant I can "rationally" be concerning any given activity, the more that activity is a good for me. I can take more for granted with a new house or car than I can with a used one.

A used car would make me more aware of mechanics, and a used house more aware of carpentry, panelling+insullation. Likewise living in a good municipality allows one to take more for granted.

If I am living somewhere where I have to worry about the fire department...where I have to monitor lead in the water, where I have to think about public schools, where I have to join a community housewatching group because the police department is deficient...all of these things may make me more civic minded...but all are the result of a deficiency...I have to allocate time and resources to area X because I see a problem with area X. Where there is no problem there is little to demand my time and resources.

As in the garden of Eden, so it is true now: Ignorance was and is the result of bliss. Knowledge was and is the result of defficiency.

The vicious cycle is thus initiated: Bliss leads to Ignorance which leads to defficiency which leads to Knowledge. Good government leads to Apathy, which leads to bad government, which leads to Activism.

The end of Good Government is apathy, the end of Bad Government is "civic health".

In short, once more... the cure for the disease is worse than the disease itself. The cure for Apathy, civic disinterest and the Un-electorate is bad government.

Of course the Un-electorate may always choose to vote with feet...and thus thwart the will of those who ascribe undue primacy to the ballot box.

Perhaps In jest I should write my rejoinder...Too Informed to vote(at the ballot box). I could easily cite Benjamin Highton and Raymond Wolfinger "voters' preferences differ minimally from those of all citizens; outcomes would not change if everyone voted."

-John Lewis

Note, about half of the population do not care, they do not vote, so I would make assumptions about those lunkheads even though they are lunkheads.

Another note, the best police is the nosy neighbor!

Julie, that story is PRICELESS!

That guy should be tracked down and put in charge of the State Department. Anyone with that much contempt for political correctness has to have something going for him. God, I wish I was there to witness that.

Voting rights should be dependent on passing an English-language literacy test. The justification being that if you aren't capable of obtaining a relatively full range of information about the campaign, the candidates, and the issues, and are therefore dependent on television and other relatively primitive cues, your vote shouldn't outweigh the vote of a literate person -- and therefore should not be possible. We could think of some exceptions, perhaps for elderly immigrants fluent in their home language. While election outcomes might not be radically different if everyone voted, I would not care to put that proposition to the test. I do think election outcomes would be tilted somewhat against statism if many fewer people -- the grossly ignorant -- voted than vote now. The discussion is utterly unreal at this time, of course. But if we start talking about it seriously now, we may live to see the day when it's partially implemented by a more enlightened political class than we now have.

There is a difference, you know, between respecting the people and pandering to them. Likewise, there is a difference between understanding the limitations of the people and having outright contempt for them. Without naming names, it appears to me that some on this thread either do not understand that distinction or willfully reject it. Two things are needed, it seems to me, to get a proper perspective: 1) a sense of humor about man's woeful limitations in general and political limitations in particular and 2) a better grasp of our natural equality and the rights that flow from it--even to ill and uninformed dunderheads.

What I take away from Jonah's article is this: efforts to push people who are not otherwise inclined to vote are ill-advised. Let them stay home and remain blissfully ignorant. But testing? That would be just as ill-advised.

So give a test with copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and maybe even your state's constitution appended to it. Or make voter's manuals readily available ahead of the test, just as with the driver's manuals available in every state. Anyone who can read a driver's manual and pass the driver's test that Goldberg mentions ought to be able to pass a similar type of voting test. I am not asking for Ashbrook Scholars. I just ask for voters with basic civic literacy and a little political acumen.

Why not just make your test a requirement for high school graduation, Kate? I'd have more sympathy for that--even though I have contempt for most testing as a matter of general principle. You'd also have more luck in trying to implement this sort of test than you would a test for voting--and for many good reasons. Imagine the people who would administer this voting test . . . the people who would make the questions . . . the politicization that would inevitably accompany the test . . . the unnecessary fight over establishing it (a fight that would make conservatives look foolish and one they'd almost certainly lose) . . . but most of all, imagine the humorless, sheepish, pin-headed people who would dutifully show up to wait their turn in line to take the test . . . and imagine all the good souls with just enough rebellion in them to refuse it. Do you think the vast numbers of the Revolutionary generation--I mean those who did the fighting--would have been able to take such a test? Or, more important, would they willingly have submitted to it? Don't you have to respect that part of an American that would not submit?

For the record, I'm not for poll testing. I just found Julie's story hilarious.

14: Julie, I've admitted literacy tests are an "unreal" option at this time. You're right that there are serious practical concerns. You're wrong to mechanically apply the metaphysical concept of equality (in which I too agree) to hard social realities. There is no equality in competence or in the character of different people's citizenship, or lack thereof. I'm with Aristotle: To treat unequals as equals is injust.

Also, you're right that the proposal seems statist. On the other hand, illiterates and semi-literates have been voting us into ever-increasing statism since 1932, counting the Reagan Era as a temporary respite.

David says:



I'm with Aristotle: To treat unequals as equals is injust.



But you still want to give everyone the same standardized citizenship test to vote?

I do not see this type of qualification for voting as inimical to republican government. There were property requirements once, to which the citizenry submitted. Those also make some sense to me, though the definitions of property would have to be adjusted somewhat. If we will be perpetually wedded to the IRS and income taxes and FICA then make paying those taxes in some way a requirement, too. Then you can't vote unless you put in, somehow. The idea is to make the people who vote have some stake in the process, isn't it? I do understand what you argue as antithetical to democracy. I am currently disenchanted with absolute democracy.


I would be happy to make that test a requirement for high school graduation. I am hearing from teachers that "No Child Left Behind" left the study of American History behind as a requirement. However, high school graduation would NOT be my test for voting rights.


I am having a running argument with one of my sons about the immigration issue. He is serving in the Navy with immigrants who are IN the Navy as a fast-track to citizenship, because they WANT to be Americans. They have no problem serving the country to that good end. They would understand your Ugandan. My son has also worked with illegal immigrants in restaurants who know more about American government than many citizens. Honestly, I would rather let those people vote - they love America and do not consider that it "owes" them anything.


I have no love of testing, nor of statism. I see this as a last resort, and I think we are approaching a need for "last resorts" in the U.S. I do not love the idea of the consent of the governed being something qualified, and yet would prefer informed consent to what we have now because I am aggrieved at the status quo of being governed by my fellow citizens who have no ideals of governance beyond the pursuit of happiness - and happiness is something like a warm puppy to them. When the understanding of Americans' rights descend to little else but rights to "civil rights", food stamps, public housing, and "affordable health care" for all, we have lost something important. I want that important stuff back. Yes, Julie, a test might be what you say it would be and that would be awful. Call me an activist, pace John Lewis, but I see a need for better government.

Is it not possible that the instincts of a hard-working and decent citizen often trump the well-meaning but poorly reasoned logic of the so-called "educated" classes? Good sense in voting clearly has nothing--or very little--to do with formal education or literacy. If you doubt this, consider the political tendencies of most faculty members at your nearest college. David Frisk suggests that my grounding an argument against tests in equality is off-base. He argues--with Aristotle, he says--that treating unequals as equals is unjust. Aristotle is correct about that, but I think David is forcing the argument here. Is it fair to say that any of us are unequals when it comes to the right of giving consent? The whole idea of equality in the Declaration stems from the basic premise that none of us is so great as to have the right to govern another man without his consent and that none of us is so inferior (as is a dog, for example) as to be born without that right. There is no natural right to vote, I understand, and there are other ways to consent to your government. Still, for all practical purposes in our regime as it is currently constituted, consent has come to mean voting. Making it mean something else today would be more than a Herculean task. It would be akin to revolution and revolutions should not be undertaken for light and transient reasons.

So, to be clear, I do not think tests (or even property requirements or head of family requirements) are necessarily antithetical to republican government. But I do think that Americans would be right to be suspicious of those trying to institute (or re-institute) such requirements for voting today. I think they would be right to be on guard to protect their right to consent. And I think that because they are sensible enough to sense that much, they are healthy enough to understand what creeping tyranny and creeping socialism is too. We'll always need statesmanship just as an individual needs prudence. And it is true that we may not always get it. But there's no systemic fix to this problem. You can't constitute a government that gets around that need. And that's why you need a sense of humor in life. Things will never be as they should. In the end, I think we will do all kinds of stupid things as a nation--some of which we may not be able to undo--but I still think we'll do better this way than we would have done some other way. And, in the end, I still trust the people. Who was the famous conservative (Bill Buckley?) who said that he would rather be governed by ten random names he chose out of the phone book than by the faculty senate at Harvard? Whoever he was, with him I whole-heartedly agree.

No, I do not want an intellectual electorate, just an informed one. When I worked at the polling places in my area, I was been happy with what I saw. But this is a conservative county. People usually know something about government, not from lengthy and formal educations, but they DO read and watch the news. Although, as we suburbanize out here, 30 miles from Cleveland, and as the local population grows, I am less impressed with my neighbors at election time than I was 10-15 years ago. Maybe it is a change of generation? At one time, ten random names from my local phone book would have been just fine. I am not so sure today.


I am NOT writing with any expectation of change in the direction I propose. I confess to wishful thinking.

However, I do think what we are doing now is unrealistic, because of the all kinds of stupid things (we do) as a nation--some of which we may not be able to undo. I am not so sure the electorate is immune to the appeal of socialism, partly because they do not understand what it is and given our government since the Progressive Era, what we have seems normal. Fascism is not all about jackboots and political oppression, though it is popularly seen as that, even by the very well-educated. I see us there, democratically choosing it, too, and it grieves me.

I agree with everything Julie has said(in this thread)

But I would say that every american has the right to consent to his government. Voting is an essential piece of this puzzle...or so the misconception goes. I certainly believe in the mantra: no taxation without representation! On the other hand, I believe that consenting to your government is a question of relocating cost. Vote with your feet and put your money where your mouth is. Some people like to aid the Vote with money, and put their feet where their mouths are instead...but to each his own.

As you all know I am a token Libertarian, and I share some of Kate's concerns...but In the end I don't think the voters in this nation are doing that bad of a job. I don't think that we would be better served by enlightened voters, or even by noble idealistic patriots, sadly enough each voter simply voting his own self interest(howhever he conceptualizes it) is probably best. As far as I am concerned we are already living in a quasi-socialist state. Some socialists think we are living in Gault's Gulch. Where you think we are is a question of where you are starting from, and in which direction you think we should be heading. But I am too much of an optimist to believe that we haven't already slid down a slope and reached a plateau. There is no way my vote can bring us back towards Objectivism or whatever ideal you believe I might hold up, on the other hand there is no way the majority of the faculty at Harvard will not be eternally frustrated. We are stuck with intellectally lame and or inconsistent politicians who are simply log rolling various self-interested groups towards what they hope is a majority. And this is a good thing...because it frees me up. I am not going to struggle vainly to get people to see things my way...I am going to relocate to where people already see things my way. Viva Urban Sprawl and Gentrification...In the modern world every man (with the means or if he feels that strongly about it) can live in his own private Idaho, his own gated community, his own utopia.

Julie brought us this post courtesy of an experience aquired in a required course that she did not think was "serious".

Most of my thinking in these posts was also courtesy of a less than "serious" (to be honest I would call it socialist) required class on Urban Economics.

The models and the Data are overwhelming...Red vs. Blue is just the tip of the iceburg. People live with and around others that share most of the interests/beliefs they share.

If enough black people move in, almost all the white people move out. Young/old. Afluent/poor. Religious/secular. It is kind of strange...regardless of what you are measuring there is a tipping point. (which makes it kind of unfair to jump to race, and say that it is proof of racism..which it is.) But it is also proof of Sameism. People locate around those who share their identifiers/isms.

You either integrate or you relocate.

Leave a Comment

* denotes a required field
 

No TrackBacks
TrackBack URL: http://nlt.ashbrook.org/movabletype/mt-tb.cgi/10936