Recently I was having a conversation with our friend Hugh about voters and how so many are uninformed … should we even encourage those who haven’t taken the time to learn about the candidates, their platforms and the issues, to go to the polls and cast a vote? Later, as I was thinking about that conversation, I remembered a piece I wrote last spring, and thought that, with the mid-terms coming up in a few months, perhaps it was appropriate to run this one again. (Yes, laziness/tiredness and my frequent companion, mind-bounce, all play a role here too.) One of our goals in the coming months needs to be to encourage people to vote, certainly, but we need to also strive to help people understand the issues, understand the candidates’ views.
What if voters across the U.S. suddenly decided to read the Constitution, to educate themselves in the ways of our democracy? What if they took their right to vote responsibly, instead of simply responding to bluster and television ads? What if they actually took the time and trouble to seek the knowledge that would enable them to make wise decisions in November? I read the following quote earlier today, “Never have so many people with so little knowledge made so many consequential decisions for the rest of us.” It resonated with me, because that is precisely how I see the upcoming election. Citizens, some of whom have never voted before, will be going to the polls armed, not with knowledge of how our government operates, not with knowledge of what the candidates actually stand for, but with what they have heard from television, their friends, and social media blurbs.
When a person from another country wishes to become a U.S. citizen, there is a process, a road to citizenship, at the end of which they must pass a citizenship test. I have no issue with this … if they are going to live, work and vote in the US, they certainly should have some knowledge of the history and inner workings of the country. Just for fun, let’s look at some of the questions that have appeared on this test from time-to-time and see how we do:
- What territory did the United States buy from France in 1803? (Louisiana Territory)
- We elect a U.S. Representative for how many years? (2 years)
- What is the economic system in the United States? (Capitalist economy)
- What year was the Constitution written? (1787)
- If both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President? (Speaker of the House)
Now granted, these are not rocket-science questions, but there are 100 of these questions, plus an applicant for U.S. citizenship must survive an interview which includes 10 oral questions, of which 6 must be answered correctly. Now for the interesting part. In 2011, Newsweek asked 1,000 citizens/voters to take the citizenship test. Only 62% of those who took the test passed! If we extrapolate those numbers, it would appear that 38% of the voters headed to the polls in a few months do not have even basic knowledge of the government for which they will be selecting a leader!
More than 60 percent did not know the length of U.S. senators’ terms in office. And 43 percent couldn’t say that the first 10 amendments to the Constitution are known as the Bill of Rights. Only 30 percent knew that the U.S. Constitution is the supreme law of the land. only 36 percent could name all three branches of the U.S. government. Only 62 percent knew that the U.S. Supreme Court was tasked with determining the constitutionality of legislation. Fewer than half of Americans knew that split decisions in the Supreme Court have the same effect as 9 to 0 decisions. This is pathetic. These are the people who are going to pick, not only the president, but also 34 senators and all 435 representatives. The people who will make the decisions that will affect our lives, are going to be elected by people who do not even understand what our federal government does or how it functions! If you aren’t scared yet, you should be!
I could go into a whole spiel about why people are so ignorant of the basics of our government, ask questions about exactly what the schools are teaching in civics classes, but there is, I think, a better question: Why do people not care enough to educate themselves? 100 years ago, even 30 years ago, this might have been forgivable. But today, with the vast resources available to every man, woman and child via the internet? No, there is simply no excuse for not having a basic understanding of how government works, or at least is supposed to function. No excuse for not understanding what the issues facing the nation at this time are, or what each candidate believes, and learning whether their past actions actually support their claims.
When the framers of the Constitution wrote the document back in 1787, they purposely made the language simple enough for We The People to understand. That included farmers and craftsmen. One could reasonably expect that if it was understood by a farmer 229 years ago when the average person had less than 8 years of formal education, almost every registered voter today should surely be able to understand it. And it doesn’t take long to read … it is, after all, only 7,591 words, including amendments. An easily readable document, yet it would appear that a large percentage of voters have not done so.
There have been numerous attempts recently at ‘voting reform’ that serve to disenfranchise certain groups, such as the poor, Hispanics, and African-Americans. I would propose instead of requiring certain forms of identification that are likely to disqualify voters based on race or income level, we mail each registered voter a ‘voter-aptitude’ test similar to the citizenship test. Any voter who scores below 75% would not be eligible to vote in the November election. Even if they cheated by looking up the answers on the internet, at least they would have learned something, expanded their knowledge and become more worthy of making the decisions that will ultimately affect my life … and yours.
I honestly am not trying to sound like a snob. I am simply appalled at the number of people in this country who will be choosing a president, senators and representatives based only on what they see on television or read on Facebook memes. I think we should have the right to expect our voters to be at least as qualified as we expect immigrants to be in order to make these choices. Knowledge is what sets humans apart from goats … it’s why goats can’t vote.