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!