LZ Granderson has put forward quite a provocative proposal: before anyone can register to vote, they should be required to take and pass a test modeled off of the citizenship test required of immigrants. He roots this in the (true) observation that the founding fathers weren’t exactly “a bunch of average Joes with gripes about England; they were elite thinkers and philosophers.” It is also true that the framers initially restricted the franchise to land owners, effectively ruling out the uncultured and uneducated masses (Granderson doesn’t mention this). He’s also right that our national political situation is presently a lowest-common-denominator affair ruled by soundbites geared towards gaining the support of the ignorant (such is the state of democracy in its “purer” forms).
Actually, as I read Granderson’s piece, I couldn’t help think of the 1996 Simpsons‘ episode “Much Apu About Nothing,” in which Indian-immigrant Apu must take the citizenship test to avoid getting deported (due to a law that would deport all illegal immigrants as a way of protecting the citizens from wild bears). Homer agrees to tutor Apu for the citizenship test, but it quickly becomes obvious that Apu knows far more about American civics than his native-born friend. (The entire episode can be seen online here.) As usual, satire reveals the sad state of affairs in American government, with our apathetic, ignorant voter base and politicians who take advantage of this ignorance for their own political gain.
Granderson’s idea would likely help matters somewhat, but the problem is implementation (especially if there were no grandfather clause for current voters). I have considered this sort of thing before, but the problem really starts with how something like this could be implemented—and implemented fairly. I’m just not sure we could do such a thing, so the idea isn’t really a good one in the end.
But there is one thing we could do that we absolutely should do: strengthen our American “civics” curriculum across the board and require that students have a reasonable understanding of the US Government before they receive their high school diploma. That—increased educational standards—is something we could implement that would have a potentially positive impact, though it would take quite some time to see the effects.
Another thing I’d like to see: I think our elected officials should be required to take and pass a government test (or, say, memorize the US Constitution and recite or write it down as an examination) before being permitted to undertake their elected responsibilities. I continue to be amazed by some of the people we have managed to elect as national representatives, people like infamous geniuses Michele Bachmann, Corrine Brown, and Hank Johnson . I don’t think a civics test for voters is a viable option, but I certainly think it might be a good idea for our elected officials.