09 February 2010

"Literacy Tests"

For the first time in a long time, a politician is once again suggesting a "literacy test" for voting. Tom Tancredo is a well-known racist, and the idea of him suggesting a return to the old Jim Crow ways of discriminating against minorities. Here's Rachel showing what it used to mean:

Unlike Joe My God, I actually could answer the very first question asked. (I got the next one wrong, and had no clue on the rest.) I think people really underestimate the full extent of Jim Crow laws like this, and how particularly insidious they were. I recommend watching the full clip.

The sad thing is that I understand the desire and idea behind wanting some kind of basic civics test before voting. When I was younger and more naive, I had this "great idea" for a massive change to American culture, where every 18 year old had to pass a basic civics test to become an adult (though my plan was to just use the immigration test, rather than the insanity mentioned in the clip above) before being granted the rights of adulthood. I was thinking lots of pageantry, bigger than the traditional "Sweet Sixteen" idea.

Eventually, of course, someone pointed out to me the glaring flaws in this plan. It requires working school systems for all children. It requires the test administrators to be basically fair in the application. And the stakes are so high that the risks in terms of wrongful disenfranchisement would not be worth it in any way. (It would also require making people realize the "importance" of rites of passage like this.)

I think this is the flaw that many (though not all) who push this kind of idea miss. Most people pushing for a basic citizen's test or literacy test for voting are doing so (in their conscious mind) out of a worry that people who do not take civic responsibility seriously screwing things up. (I would love to see a test done on their own knowledge of basic civics and the Constitution, though.) It's the old republican idea of civic participation and duty. (I cannot believe that they are pushing for the old discriminatory version of Jim Crow.)

I get the appeal. But, it doesn't matter, because that's not where we are now. Voting is a right, afforded to all citizens, and we don't define citizenship based on testing.

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