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"And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." - John 8:32
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Author:  Mike Bates
Bio: Mike Bates
Date:  July 21, 2006
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Topic category:  Other/General

Bring back literacy tests

Arizonans will have a chance in November to approve a proposal that would award a cool million dollars to one voter, chosen by lottery, after each general election. The idea is to encourage civic participation. The idea is preposterous.

Arizonans will have a chance in November to approve a proposal that would award a cool million dollars to one voter, chosen by lottery, after each general election. The idea is to encourage civic participation. The idea is preposterous.

The mainstream media and other professional do-gooders regularly harp on the theme of everyone being better served if only more citizens would exercise the franchise. I think the problem is we already have too many people voting, including individuals who donít have a clue as to whatís going on in this world.

Rather than wailing and gnashing our teeth over low turnout, we should be relieved. A certain percentage of our fellow citizens, not knowing or not caring about public policy matters, have munificently rescued the rest of us from what would have been an ill-informed decision at best.

One survey commissioned by the National Constitution Center found that over half the people participating didnít know how many U.S. Senators there are or how long a congressional term is.

One-third couldnít name a single branch of government. Almost a quarter couldnít name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment.

These results came from a sampling of typical Americans. Well over half of those polled either have some college or are college graduates.

A decade ago, the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University examined public awareness of political matters. Two-thirds of those questioned couldnít name their own congressman. Half didnít know whether their own congressman was a Democrat or a Republican.

Nearly half didnít know the Supreme Court has ultimate responsibility for determining the constitutionality of a law. Almost 60 percent of those interviewed believed the U.S. spends more on foreign aid than on Medicare. At the time, expenditures for Medicare were about six times the amount expended for foreign aid.

The situationís not improved. Last year there was much press coverage on the health of Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and its impact on the judiciary. Yet 20 percent of Americans asked said theyíd ďnever heard ofĒ the man who had been on the nationís highest tribunal for more than thirty years.

With voter consciousness at such a low level, itís little wonder weíre doing such a lousy job of electing our representatives.

I think what we need to do is require potential voters to pass a political literacy test. That way, there will be at least a possibility that their ballot will be an informed one.

Literacy tests understandably have a bad reputation. They and other devices were used to keep blacks from voting. Extremely difficult questions, name all the stateís county judges, for example, were included to make certain that few people passed.

Political literacy tests donít need to be structured that way. They could include very basic questions such as how many years a presidentís term is, how much Ė within a trillion dollars Ė does the federal government spend each year, and who is the governor of the state. If voters canít even identify their own state capitol, why should they decide who represents them there?

Another feature of the new and improved literacy test would be that everyone would have to take it to establish eligibility. Unlike the old laws used in some Southern states, there would be no ďgrandfatheringĒ permitting selected folks to slide by without passing the exam.

I realize that this could prove an embarrassment for some politicians. They might be running for an office and not be able to vote for themselves.

This proposal isnít made in a partisan manner. Yes, at least initially Republican voters will perform substantially better than Democratic ones on the test, but with a little studying they might be able to catch up. Naturally, once they start paying attention, they might well vote differently but thatís a jeopardy both parties would confront.

Itís no coincidence that the leaders of the Arizona initiative to place each general election voter into a lottery are Democrats. Itís been said, with some truth, that lotteries are a tax on the stupid. No doubt there is considerable crossover between people attracted to lotteries and folks with little public policy awareness.

So letís have political literacy tests. In the meantime, I have a request for those who canít name a single branch of government or have little knowledge or interest in such matters. On Election Day, please stay home and just watch Maury or Oprah or Jerry or whomever instead of voting.

Itís your patriotic duty.

Mike Bates

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Notes:  This column appeared in the July 20, 2006 Oak Lawn Reporter.

Biography - Mike Bates

Mike Bates wrote a weekly column of opinion - or nonsense, depending on your viewpoint - for over 20 years. Additionally, his articles have appeared in the Congressional Record, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Mensa Journal. He has been a guest on Milt Rosenberg's program on WGN Radio Chicago, the Bruce Elliott show on Baltimore's WBAL, the Jim Sumpter show on the USA Radio Network and the New Media Journal's Blog Radio. As a lad, Mike distributed Goldwater campaign literature and since then has steadily moved further to the Right. He is the author of "Right Angles and Other Obstinate Truths." In 2007, he won an Illinois Press Association award for Original Column


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