The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Block the Vote

| Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Newsweek magazine asked 1,000 American citizens to take the United States citizenship test in March of 2011. The exam is given to those seeking naturalization and contains such mind-benders as, “Name one state that borders Mexico” and “What are the first three words of the US Constitution?” A score of 60 percent — failure by Notre Dame standards — was considered a pass.

Thirty-eight percent of respondents flunked the test. Twenty-nine percent were unable to name the vice president, while 73 percent could not define the Bill of Rights. That this level of political illiteracy exists at all in America is troubling enough. But it gets downright depressing when another truth comes to light — these people vote.

Call it the poll booth paradox. We’ve been given the power to alter our government and laws at will, yet many among us refuse to accept the associated responsibility. As the midterm elections approach, America’s future is (and may have been always) in the hands of so-called “low-information voters.”  With a flick of their fingers on a polling lever, they will shape the course of a nation of $300 million people, an economy of $15 trillion dollars, and an arsenal of 5,000 nuclear bombs. Such an enormous responsibility ought only to be entrusted to competent scholars of our country’s civics.

When your car breaks down on the side of the road, it will do you little good to flag down 30 rubberneckers and canvass them for a majority opinion. Instead, you call an automobile repairman, who has been carefully selected for his extensive knowledge and years of experience. His expertise will likely yield a more accurate diagnosis than that from the misinformed guesswork of the masses.

If we as a society so eagerly employ experts to fix our broken cars, we must be prepared to do the same with our “broken” country.  Voters who flock to the polls in November to change the nation’s government ought to be required to prove their knowledge of that government. At a minimum, they should have to pass the United States citizenship test. This will prove that their enfranchisement did not occur by accident of birth, but rather was earned through their careful study and understanding of the American political system.

This is by no means an unreasonable standard. As demonstrated above, the naturalization test is a walk in the park, even if your civic knowledge begins and ends at “Schoolhouse Rock.”  In the last five years, 91 percent of naturalization applicants — American non-citizens by definition — passed, according to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. The test is available in its entirety, with answers, on the USCIS website. There is no excuse for failure when the bar is set this low.

Now, from a legal perspective, adopting such a system would likely require an amendment to the Constitution. Requiring a “political literacy test” would probably run afoul of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and possibly the 24th Amendment. But with enough support from both sides of the Beltway, anything’s possible.

What might this new voting system look like? Perhaps something like this:

On Election Day, John Smith goes to his precinct’s polling station. He receives a ballot and fills it out as he always has, leaving two sections blank: the selection of his candidates and the civics evaluation section. On entering the booth, he fills out the civics evaluation — five multiple-choice questions randomly chosen from the United States citizenship test. He then continues as normal, filling out the remaining sections for his candidates of choice. The results are then graded electronically.

If John gets three or more questions correct, his ballot is counted towards the results of the election.  If three or more are wrong, his ballot slides to the reject bin, insulating the political process against the potential damage his ignorant decision might have caused.

As he passes by the check-in counter on the way back to work, John grabs a sticker from the bin and proudly affixes it to his chest as a symbol of his participation in the democratic process. The text?  “(Hopefully) I Voted Today!”

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

About Stephen Raab

Contact Stephen
  • no

    Oh my god. What a way to start off the year.

  • Mike

    Wow! A sad commentary on the state of our culture.
    And fixing it is a double edged sword.

  • Michelle M.

    Is there any proof that those who failed this citizenship test are also actually voting? If they’re that disengaged from politics, then there’s a high chance that they’re part of the 43% of voting-eligible adults who didn’t vote in the last election. The problem isn’t citizens mindlessly voting, it’s that so few of our citizens vote at all. Voting is already difficult for Americans (pre-registration deadlines, long lines at the polls, fitting voting into your work day, stringent Voter ID laws, etc.)–the last thing this democracy needs is further barriers to vote. Would I think our country would be better off if everyone knew their civics basics? Of course. But disenfranchising American citizens for failing to pass a civics quiz is ridiculous.

  • T

    My mother was a refugee during the Vietnam War. I asked her what she thought of Communism, and she said that she did not know what Communism is. I asked her why the Vietnam War happened. She said that she did not know. The only thing she knew was that her hometown was being bombed, that the government took peoples’ businesses away, and people were constantly thrown in jail. That is what she, a woman who doesn’t even have a middle school education, sees and cares about– her daily life. That is why she opposed her government.

    It is a shame that many US citizens don’t have basic civics knowledge, but that doesn’t matter as much as food on the table, putting their kids through school, and getting medical care. Ideology doesn’t matter even half as much as the daily life. The struggle to get through the day to day. To impose a ‘knowledge test’ before voting is to allow only people who have the time to ponder ideology, to have the education, to have the resources, to obtain this ‘knowledge’. To imply that the knowledge and experiences of an individual with limited education and struggles that a technocrat will never see is less meaningful (I am avoiding the words ‘worth less’ because the technocrat probably bought a 200k+ education). We don’t need another barrier for the poor and the lower classes to have less say in what happens to them. We don’t need to strengthen the oligarchy that exists in our ‘democratic’ nation.

  • Joepalooka1

    albeit this proposal being impractical and in truth and in many respects, ‘full of holes’, rather than side with the all too frequent argument made that registering and voting is in any way limited or restricted, I applaud the challenge that this editorial makes regarding the all too many and significantly uninformed people voting ONLY for their personal gain (whether entitlements or business interests). It’s always ‘funny’ to me that Jimmy Carter calls the same voting assurances (voter id, etc) that he champions in ‘fair elections’ oversea as being somehow restrictive in the good ol’ USA.