I am referring to the administration of a simple, unbiased civics test before an American citizen is permitted to register to vote.
Now before I get accused of undermining the U.S. Constitution, a literary masterpiece that I consider to be the greatest governing document in the history of the world, let me stop any potential detractors in their collective steps.
Simply put, the right to vote isn’t a right at all. It is not included in the main body of the Constitution, in the Bill of Rights or in the succeeding 17 amendments. Therefore, it is a privilege and not a right. And as such, it can be regulated by each state, providing that they meet certain federal and constitutional guidelines.
Don’t take my word for it. Listen to the majority ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore (2000): “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States.”
Admittedly, there are a number of amendments that make it illegal to deny someone his or her vote based on race (the 15th); gender (19th); and age (26th). The 23rd Amendment makes it legal for residents of Washington DC to vote in presidential elections and the 24th Amendment makes it illegal to charge prospective voters a poll tax.
According to www.fairvote.org, the U.S. is one of only 11 democracies in the world with no affirmative right to vote enshrined in its constitution. That is why, in the wake of the Bush v. Gore decision, Rev. Jesse Jackson launched an effort to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to vote.
Even the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a landmark piece of legislation, does not guarantee a federal right to vote. On the contrary, it simply prohibits states from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”
In other words, as long as the “qualifications or prerequisites” imposed are not intended to discriminate against prospective voters based on race, age or gender, they are constitutionally permissible…
The issuing of driver’s licenses provides a helpful illustration. Since there is no constitutionally guaranteed right to drive, states are free to test potential drivers and to issue licenses at whatever ages and proficiency levels they deem appropriate.
So, back to my original point.
When I ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 2008, one of my campaign volunteers was approached by a prospective voter outside of a polling place – and yes, he was the required distance from the front door.
Their conversation went something like this…
“Who are you volunteering for?”
“Who is he?”
“He’s running for Congress?”
When my volunteer first told me that story, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
And so I got angry instead.
Angry because the vote of an informed citizen was about to be cancelled out by the vote of an uninformed one.
Today, America is facing some of the most pressing and complicated challenges in our 236-year history. It is going to take the best candidates our country can offer to solve those problems and it is going to take an informed electorate to choose those candidates.
That is why I support a national civics test as a prerequisite for voting in a federal election. Perhaps a few simple questions, randomly selected from a database of several hundred to prevent cheating. Questions like “Name the Vice President” or “What are the three branches of the federal government?”
Not exactly brain teasers, I admit, but hopefully they will prevent voters who haven’t a clue about the issues – let alone the candidates – from casting a ballot that cancels out someone else’s. People who are too lazy to read a newspaper or watch a television news program shouldn’t be rewarded for their indifference.
Call me a radical, but I think that a basic knowledge of American civics should be required before granting someone the privilege of electing our future leaders.