Tancredo: If You Can’t Spell Vote, Should You Be Allowed To?

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Like the weather, everyone complains about voter ignorance but no one does anything about it. There are solutions, but serious ones are all controversial. I have one that ought not to be controversial.

Shouldn’t all voters possess that same rudimentary knowledge of the Constitution and our federal system of government as naturalized citizens? Why not require all citizens to pass the same civics exam as immigrants have to pass if they want to join the voter rolls?

  • Our naturalization laws require all legal immigrants seeking to become citizens to pass a civics exam before joining the ranks of two hundred million other voters— and the exam is administered in English. They can remain legal immigrants forever without becoming naturalized citizens, and many do, but if they want to vote they have to pass a civics exam as part of the naturalization process.
  • So, in a similar vein, we should say to natural-born citizens, you can be a citizen forever and enjoy all the rights and privileges of citizenship, but if you want to be a voter, if you want to choose the officials who make laws and decide on war and peace, you have to pass a simple civics exam.

This proposal is blatantly “pro-immigrant”: it says native-born citizens should live up to the same expectations we have for new citizens. What’s wrong with that?

Of course, if implemented this proposal will not end all voter ignorance. But it would be a giant step in the right direction. It places equal weight on the responsibilities of voting as on the right to vote.

When I first proposed this a few years ago in a speech to the Tea Party convention in Nashville, I was slammed by the New York Times– which is always a good sign you are onto something good. The NY TIMES, lacking any other argument, played the race card, charging that I was advocating a “return to Jim Crow laws.” Isn’t it blatantly racist to assume blacks can’t pass a simple civics exam in the same rates as others?

Common everyday experience as well as polling tells us that voter ignorance is not a matter of race, sex, age, religion or vegan allegiances. Ignorance is a matter of laziness, indifference and apathy.

It is neither racist nor elitist to say publicly what every rational person believes privately — that if you don’t know anything about a subject, you ought not to raise your hand or cast a ballot on the matter.

It is already widely accepted that not voting on issues or candidates you have not studied is a mature and sensible decision: it is called “under-voting” and millions of voters do it. We deliberately skip over an issue or a race, a bond issue or a judge retention question, where we admit ignorance and choose not to dilute the votes of voters.

We have all seen the hilarious “man-in-the-street” interviews on political issues and events, and they usually feature a predominance of white, under-30 urbanites displaying abysmal ignorance. Will Hillary Clinton seek another term as George Bush’s Vice President? Do you think United Nations taxes are too high? What are Joe Biden’s chances of winning the Republican nomination? We laugh and cry at the same time because these are the people who will chart the course of government for our children and grandchildren.

Evidence suggests strongly that the problem of voter ignorance is growing, not improving. Self-styled progressives are now calling for lowering the voting age from 18 to 16, and President Obama recently called for mandatory voting. To those advocates,  the level of intelligence and knowledge applied to voting is unimportant: anything that inhibits 100 percent turnout is a “conspiracy against democracy.”

Madison, Jefferson and Adams would not understand such ideological fervor for uninformed voting, but that’s where we are today.

For many reasons, sending more people to college is not an answer, and the level of schooling is not an indicator of civic knowledge. A 2006 survey of 14,000 freshman and seniors at 50 colleges and universities revealed that when taking tests on American history, government, international relations and the market economy, the average score for seniors was a failing grade — 53 percent.

Immigrants understand why they need to pass a civics exam to become citizens and why a fluency in basic English is also required. Some have to take the exam more than once, but if they don’t pass, they do not join the voter rolls. Why not raise expectations and standards for our native-born citizens to that same minimal level?

If passing a simple non-partisan civics exam is too high a hurdle for some people, so be it; they should not be invited to vote. It doesn’t matter if they are white, brown, yellow or black, aged 20, 50 or 90, if they are apathetic or too lazy to take the test, they ought not to be allowed to dilute the votes of citizens who do strive to understand government and the challenges facing the nation.

Our country is facing dangers and challenges unprecedented in our history. Let’s summon the courage to insist on a minimal level of civic knowledge for the citizens empowered to decide our fate.


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