If you've followed politics for any length of time, you've undoubtedly heard the phrase "People get the government they deserve." It's a cynical expression casting doubt on the intelligence of the American electorate for sending corrupt and incapable representatives to Washington, D.C.
We get what we deserve, in other words.
The saying is often followed with a question: "Should voters have to pass a test?" Should voters have to prove they understand how the government works, or that they know the names of their own representatives, before being allowed to enter the voting booths?
The idea of having voters pass a test is not as far-fetched as it might seem. Until recent decades, many Americans were forced to pass tests before being allowed to vote. The discriminatory practice was banned in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Civil Rights-era law banned discrimination through the use of poll taxes and the application of any "test of device" such as a literacy test to determine whether voters could take part in elections.
Argument for New Voter Tests
Many conservatives have called for the use of civics tests to decide whether Americans are allowed to vote. They argue that citizens who don't understand how the government functions or can't even name their own congressman are not capable of making intelligent decisions about who to send to Washington, D.C., or their state capitols.
Two of the most prominent supporters of such voter tests were Jonah Goldberg, a syndicated columnist and editor-at-large of the National Review Online, and conservative columnist Ann Coulter. They have argued that poor choices made at the polls impact more than just the voters who make them, but the nation as a whole.
"Instead of making it easier to vote, maybe we should be making it harder," Goldberg wrote in 2007. "Why not test people about the basic functions of government? Immigrants have to pass a test to vote; why not all citizens?"
Wrote Coulter: "I think there should be a literacy test and a poll tax for people to vote."
At least one lawmaker has expressed support for the idea. In 2010, former U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado suggested that President Barack Obama would not have been elected in 2008 had there been a civics and literacy test in place. Tancredo said his support for such tests dated back to when he was in office.
"People who could not even spell the word 'vote' or say it in English put a committed socialist ideologue in the White House. His name is Barack Hussein Obama," Tancredo said at the 2010 National Tea Party Convention.
Argument Against Voter Tests
Voter tests have a long and ugly history in American politics. They were among many Jim Crow Laws used primarily in the South during segregation to intimidate and prevent black citizens from voting. The use of such tests or devices was banned in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
According to the group Civil Rights Movement Veterans, black citizens who wished to register to vote in the South were made to read aloud lengthy and complex passages from the U.S. Constitution:
"The Registrar marked each word he thought you mispronounced. In some counties, you had to orally interpret the section to the registrar's satisfaction. You then had to either copy out by hand a section of the Constitution, or write it down from dictation as the registrar spoke (mumbled) it. White applicants usually were allowed to copy, Black applicants usually had to take dictation. The Registrar then judged whether you "literate" or "illiterate." His judgement was final and could not be appealed.
Tests given in some states allowed black voters only 10 minutes to answer 30 questions, most of which were complex and intentionally confusing. Meantime, white voters were asked simple questions such as "Who is the president of the United States?"
Such behavior flew in the face of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which reads:
"The right of U.S. citizens to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."