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I propose that we re-institute civics tests, as a requirement for voting. I was led to consider this by a couple of independent sources over the past day or two. I’ve been listening to Douglas Murray’s latest book, The War on the West, and one of the points that he makes relates to the astonishing historical ignorance of most Americans (and Westerners). Perhaps coincidentally — though perhaps not — a video popped up in my phone’s YouTube feed, titled: “UNREAL: Do Young Americans Know ANYTHING?!” It was amusing, though possibly not a representative sample of young people:
This led me to recall a story that I saw about the inability of most Americans to pass a basic civics exam, specifically using the 100 questions asked as part of the qualification for prospective naturalized citizens. The initial report was in 2018 (here), with a follow-up in 2019 (here), and the results were dismal.
The 2018 result, of a survey of 1,000 Americans, showed that only 36% could pass the citizenship exam. It appears that there are 100 possible questions on the exam, of which 10 are asked of a prospective citizen, and 60% is a passing grade. You can take a practice test here, if you’re interested. Personally, I found it to be almost laughably easy, without studying.
I can’t resist taking a stab at the authors of the report, which was commissioned by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. They stated:
Surprisingly, the poll found stark gaps in knowledge depending on age. Those 65 years and older scored the best, with 74 percent answering at least six in 10 questions correctly. For those under the age of 45, only 19 percent passed with the exam, with 81 percent scoring a 59 percent or lower.
The only thing surprising about this, I think, is that the folks at Woodrow Wilson found the relatively greater knowledge of the old, and relative ignorance of the young, to be surprising. I do wish that they’d provided further details about the age breakdown.
The 2019 report was a larger sample, 41,000 Americans, and the results were a bit better but still dismal. The overall pass rate was about 40% (the report said “four in 10”), with only 27% of Americans under age 45 passing the test. This result may not have been nationally representative, as they reported separate results for each state (and consequently, the sample may have been skewed in favor of lower-population states).
In any event, we have a standard civics exam, which we use for purposes of qualifying prospective citizens for naturalization. Why don’t we use this same test as a qualification for voting?
I do understand that there is (allegedly) a history of such tests being used unfairly to exclude black voters. (I accept these claims for the present discussion, though I’ve never witnessed it, and given the falsehoods spread recently by various and sundry race hustlers, I’m starting to doubt claims like this that were made during the Civil Rights movement.) But even assuming that in the past, voting tests were used unfairly to exclude blacks — by asking blacks hard questions, and asking whites easy questions — this should not invalidate the idea of testing. It should just invalidate the idea of unfair testing.
We can do such testing fairly, can’t we? In fact, we seem to be doing so, asking these questions of prospective naturalized citizens. Doing so in the voting context should be no problem.
The results reported by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation folks don’t give any indication of whether such testing would have a “disparate impact” by race, or by political party for that matter. I don’t care about such a disparate impact. I do not wish to exclude black people from voting. I wish to prevent voting by people who are demonstrably, monumentally ignorant, whatever the color of their skin.
I can’t even predict whether such a system would be good for Republicans or good for Democrats. I just don’t know. The information that I have indicates that older folks would be substantially more likely to pass.
What do you think of my modest proposal?Published in