Friday, October 5, 2012
Who Should Get to Vote?
I had this thought the other day. It came to me almost as a joke, but still I wonder . . .
I saw a story about a 92-year-old widow in one of the states where they're trying to put in voter i.d. laws. The woman has been voting for 70 years. She sold her car a few years ago because it was getting difficult for her to drive, and now she no longer has a driver's license. She isn't planning any international trips, so she doesn't have a passport. So under the new legal restriction, she would no longer be able to vote.
The clear message: Obviously, this woman has every right to vote, and the new i.d. law would deny her that inalienable right.
Okay, I get it. On the other hand . . . what the story really made me think was that while many 92-year-olds are still sharp as a tack, many others are suffering from Alzheimer's or other problems that cause them to lose their mental faculties. Besides, to be brutally honest, what do 92-year-olds care about the future of the country anyway? Okay, they might give a thought to their children and grandchildren, but most 92-year-olds themselves will be gone before the end of the next presidential term.
It's a cold, hard fact that the aging process often robs us of our mental and physical capacities. And if some of the 90-somethings have lost their mental ability and social consciousness, does it really help the future of our country to count their votes?
If our dottering 92-year-olds shouldn't vote because they're forgetful and possibly confused, then why should we want other incompetent people to vote? Don't they just mess things up for the rest of us?
Should Bernie Madoff or Allen Stanford get to vote? Why? So they can vote in favor of political candidates who want to legalize theft and fraud? Is a good idea for crack whores and pimps to vote? Are we supposed to take their views seriously? What about people who are mentally challenged? Do they understand the political process? Do they know how the economy works?
What about high-school dropouts? Should we let people who for whatever reason are so short-sighted, so unable to control their own lives, that they kill their own future prospects have a voice in killing our future prospects?
I know the idea of "one man, one vote" is sacrosanct in our democracy. But just maybe it's not such a great idea to let the ignorant, the uneducated and the incompetent help us decide the future of our country.
Last year Newsweek did a survey, giving 1,000 Americans the American Citizenship Test, the exam taken by immigrants who want to become a citizen. After the results came in, Newsweek could only conclude: "The country's future is imperiled by our ignorance."
Among the results: Some 27% of respondents did not know who is in charge of the executive branch of government. Really? Should these people be allowed to vote for president, when they don't even know what his job is? Almost 30% could not name Joe Biden as the current vice president. Over half could not say how long a senate term is! Is it really helpful to the country for these people to help decide who the next group of senators will be?
Maybe we should only let people vote if they have graduated from high school, or have a GED. Or people who are recent immigrants (after all, they've passed the American Citizenship test!)
Or maybe instead of voter i.d. laws, which discriminate against people who don't drive, we should administer a simple civics test to people who want to vote. After all, you have to pass a test to get a driver's license. It's not a hard test. Over 200 million Americans (about 90% of the adult population) have passed it and qualified as licensed drivers. Is voting any less a responsibility than driving a car? Maybe we should require voters to pass a test every five years or so, to make sure they continue to be of sound mind -- so if you're in your 90s and can answer a few basic questions, then you can still vote, even if you've sold your car.
I proposed this idea to a friend the other day while we were driving over to the mall. She's a registered Democrat and a firm Obama supporter. I was kind of joking, but she took me seriously. She thought it was a good idea!
"But you couldn't really suggest something like this for real," I said. "People have given their lives for universal suffrage. Plus, you'd probably be accused of being a racist; a lot of the people failing the test would be people of color."
"I'm not so sure," she said. "You can't assume most of the people failing a voter registration test would be black."
"Uh, no," I said. "But I'm pretty sure the black population has a higher high-school dropout rate than whites."
"That doesn't matter," she replied. "A free public education is available to everyone, whether you're white or black, rich or poor, so it wouldn't it be discriminatory to require a high-school diploma to register to vote."
"Well . . . maybe," I demurred, but I wasn't sure if I really believed that. Poor kids with little or no family support have a hard time getting through high school no matter how hard they try. But it did make me wonder: Who would benefit politically from a rule like this? Republicans or Democrats? I honestly don't know.
We arrived at the mall, and so we left it there. Just a silly idea that we tossed around as kind of a thought game. Later, in a more serious moment, I thought: First of all, elderly people who really are incapacitated probably don't go out to vote anyway, so why deny anyone their right? And maybe it's a better idea for us as a nation to get more serious about education. Treat our teachers better. Get more males to teach in the public schools. Make our urban schools as good as our suburban schools. And try harder to make sure everyone, or almost everyone, does get a high-school education, does develop some skills, and actually does feel like they have a stake in the future of America.
And I wonder . . . if all this happened, maybe the candidates would stop producing ads that appeal to the lowest common denominator. Possibly the cable news channels would raise their level of discourse. Maybe the candidates would discuss real issues instead of speaking in sound bites and calling each other names.