Time for Literacy Tests


An air of confusion hangs over Alvin Greene’s victory in the South Carolina Democratic primary. The candidate for the U.S. Senate seemingly came out of nowhere to receive 59% of the vote. Allegations of dirty tricks have been made, but so far none have been substantiated.


Anecdotal evidence suggests that many did indeed vote for him based on criteria which surely would make our founding fathers cringe. Some of those interviewed admitted that they knew nothing of Mr. Greene, his opponent or how either man stands on issues. It was enough that his name was first on the ballot and appealed to them. 


Truthfully, the farce presented by this election may be more blatant than in others, but the core problem is in no way unique to this particular race or state. Over the past decades Americans have been urged to vote for all sorts of individuals based on their gender, race or well-known family name. Even in Supreme Court nominations, all sorts of demographic issues trump ability.  I venture that even the majority of those who consider themselves well-informed base their knowledge on television commercials and marketing material rather than actually analyzing a candidate’s past actions and words.


Literacy tests received a bad name and were outlawed in this country because they were too often used as a means to achieve a racist or anti-immigrant result. But is there anything truly wrong with asking those who vote to reveal some knowledge of the vote they are casting? Jay Leno gets a lot of laughs with “man on the street” interviews that show how appallingly ignorant people are. During the last presidential election he showed clips of people explaining why Sarah Palin was a good running mate for Barack Obama, being unable to identify a picture or name of any of the Supreme Court Justices and having no idea whether Iran was part of the United States or not. (Full disclosure: I don’t actually remember the specific clips I saw, but my examples are perfectly plausible).


But considering how abhorrent the idea of an election literacy or knowledge test would be to most Americans, perhaps we could start by implementing what I think would be a less controversial idea. Other than those it targets, could anyone be opposed to having our legislators take a basic exam on any legislation for which they are casting a vote? It would be perfectly reasonable to say that a failing grade should mean not being allowed to vote – and no grading on the curve. For one thing, legislation running thousands of pages would cease to be offered if you just might get a question on an obscure paragraph from page 1,316. Secondly, we might have a clue that a law is poorly written if half the legislators answer one way and half the other way on questions such as: “According to this piece of legislation XYZ will be illegal. Circle Yes or No.” 


This idea could be expanded to require all candidates for public office to take a basic economics exam. And I think the public would very much enjoy if the first session of Congress each term featured a televised quiz show starring our representatives answering questions pertinent to our Constitution and history.


Alvin Greene’s nomination disturbs South Carolina Democrats. But their pain could be the nation’s gain if it highlights how increasingly ignorant the American electorate is and spurs us to reclaim voting as a privilege rather than a right.




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