I swear to God, three weeks ago I heard a man standing outside a Rite-Aid tell another man that he didn't like Mitt Romney, but would still vote against President Obama, because "my uncle told me Obama set up Obamacare, so he'd make a big profit from it and send the money to his family in Kenya." I felt almost grateful to the other man, who told Rite-Aid Guy, "Huh? I've never heard that. That can't be right."
That exchange came within a couple of days of a friend's co-worker telling him that Jim Pendergraph wouldn't get his vote in the congressional race because, "He says he'll raise everybody's taxes" — which was pretty much the exact opposite of Pendergraph's position.
Those two incidents (in addition to insert-your-own-dumb-voter-tale here) remind us that many of our fellow citizens live in abysmal ignorance of even the most basic facts about how government works. All of which makes me believe it's time to reconsider a question I asked in this column five years ago: Are some people just too damned ignorant to be allowed to vote? Or, posed perhaps more gently, how should we deal with the fact that America has some of the dumbest voters in the world?
We've all read or heard the sad tales:
More than half of Americans can't name the three branches of the U.S. government. Some college students think the U.S. fought on Germany's side against Russia in World War II. Over 75 percent of Americans can name at least two of the seven dwarves from Snow White, but only 25 percent can name two Supreme Court justices. On a typical election day, according to Pew Research Center, about 60 percent of Americans can't name a single candidate in their own district, for any office. And, incredibly, recent polls showed that nearly half of American adults don't know that the Supreme Court upheld the healthcare reform law — mind you, they didn't agree or disagree with the decision; they didn't even know it had happened. Sad to say, but it's no longer all that surprising when you run into someone like Rite-Aid Guy and his Obama myth-making uncle.
By the way, in case you think you're immune, take this quick quiz: Who is your representative in the North Carolina House? How about the Senate? I only knew one of the two; how'd you do?
I hesitate to bring up the issue again, as the last time I was blasted from left and right for being "elitist." I hardly think it's elitist to think that the nation and our common good is ill-served, to put it mildly, by letting uninformed dummies have a big impact on important political decisions.
At the same time, the notion of taking away anyone's right to vote, no matter how dumb or misinformed, is out of the question. Every adult American's right to vote is sacrosanct, and that goes for the apathetic as well as the news hounds, Einsteins as well as doofuses, billionaires along with the unemployed — everybody.
And yet ... It's also undeniably unjust — not to mention bad for the country — for ignoramuses to have the same say as vigilant, committed citizens. I've always agreed with the progressive view of democracy — one person/one vote — but I've gradually started wondering whether that can really work in a country where voter ignorance is so widespread. Here's my idea, as imperfect as it is. I suggest some kind of voter test, maybe a combination of the basics-of-government exam taken by would-be naturalized citizens, and a current-events quiz. Results could determine how much your vote counts. Fail the test and you still get to vote, and that vote counts once. Ace the test and your vote would count as, say, three votes. Details could be worked out on the gradations of votes, how to implement such a system and so forth. Hey, it's a preliminary idea, not a formal proposal.
Such a system wouldn't be perfect, and you'd have to put measures in place to ensure it wasn't abused. But, to my mind, almost anything would be preferable to a system that deems informed citizens' input equal to that of the Rite-Aid guy. Because that, in essence, is the system we have now.
An earlier, different version of this column appeared in 2007, and is included in the author's book Deliver Us From Weasels. For more information on the issue of voter ignorance, see Just How Stupid Are We? by Rick Shenkman.