A couple of weeks ago, when I was home from college on fall break, I made my way to the local polling station to cast my vote early. This was my first time voting, and I have a number of thoughts on the experience.
There are some who would tell you not voting is wrong. I am not one of those people. If you don’t know who or what you’re voting for, you shouldn’t vote. You don’t have a civic responsibility to vote. You have a civic responsibility to be an informed voter. The principle of democracy is that the people ought to rule. Have you ever thought of how important of a responsibility that is? You wouldn’t hire a brain surgeon who hadn’t been to medical school, and you wouldn’t hire a lawyer to defend you in court if they didn’t know the law. Likewise, you shouldn’t have rulers, in this case the people, who don’t know civics. If rule by the people is seriously the ideal we aspire to, then that requires a people knowledgeable enough to be capable of ruling. As many people should vote as possible, but it’s more important that those voting know what they are doing.
There was a reason the Ancient Greeks were so restrictive on who got to be a citizen. All of the members of the Athenian assembly were wealthy landowners with slaves to manage their estates. Why was that? It wasn’t just their patriarchy, the logistics of having a 10,000 man assembly in 500 BC, or their illiberal belief in slavery. Being a member of the assembly capable of ruling the city of Athens was a full-time job. Rule by the people requires responsibility. So here are three things I think would improve American voting by ensuring as many people can vote as possible, but also that those voting are educated on the issues they are voting on.
1) Same day registrations:
This is an aspect of voting in New Hampshire and 14 other states that ought to become uniform nationwide. There is little evidence it makes elections more expensive or increases fraudulent voting. You just show up to the polls with the proper paperwork, same as you would if you were registering a month before, and you just register there before voting. It makes voting easier, and every state instituting same-day registration would increase voter turnout with almost no costs, material or ethical, to the state itself.
2) Re-institute residency requirements for state and local elections:
When I went to vote in Tennessee, I got to vote for a bevy of local offices, things like city commissioner and school board members. The problem is I had been in Tennessee for just five days. I know next to nothing about Tennessee state politics, I had no understanding of the candidates, and I have no stake in who won the election. It doesn’t make sense that I get a say in these elections.
A stricter residency requirement would help ensure that people knowledgeable and passionate about the community are those voting for their local leaders. This requirement would only apply to state or local elections. For my example, as a student in another state I still have a stake in national elections, even when I’m not deeply invested in my locality. The requirement would not be too strict, just if I want to vote for mayor, state representatives, or school board members, I need to have lived in an area for, let’s say, 90 days. The exact day is largely irrelevant, just long enough to ensure those voting have a stake in the community.
In 1972 the Supreme Court ruled 6-1 that residency requirements longer than 30 days were unconstitutional in the case Dunn v. Blumstein. Their argument was residency requirements basically deprived citizens of their right to vote for exercising the right to travel. But I don’t think their logic holds. First, they determined that a period of 30 days was the time necessary to prevent fraud and ensure ethical elections. But we’ve found with same day registration that no period of time is really necessary to ensure ethical elections, so shouldn’t that make all residency or even registration requirements unconstitutional? On top from that, the Constitution gives the Congress the power to regulate only the time and manner of national elections, it leaves ALL other powers up to the states. Apart from a couple of amendments giving the vote to women, minorities, and young people, that power should be unchanged. Last, in this case the court said Tennessee, the state in question, did not establish a relationship between the residency requirements and having an informed electorate. But states do have a compelling state interest in ensuring the people voting in their elections have a real stake in the outcome. People who do not have skin in the game, nor any understanding of the nuisances of local politics, should not be able to help decide how the game is to be played. Residency requirements are not a flawless solution, but it would help achieve that goal. By the way, if you’re curious, I only voted to US Senate, Congressman, and Governor, the races I could find information on. I didn’t cast votes for local offices I didn’t know.
3) Mandate a basic civics test for national elections:
This is an idea to ensure that the people casting votes, and in theory ruling over us, actually know what they are doing. The knowledge of civics in this country is abysmal. Just 62% of citizens can pass the test immigrants have to take to become citizens. I have no problem if someone wants to be uneducated. But it’s unwise to let someone elect people to a legislature when they can’t name the two houses of that legislature.
I’m not saying someone needs to get a 160 on the LSAT to vote. Just ten or twenty simple questions on civics. Name the first President of the United States. What is the Bill of Rights? What is protected in the first amendment? Simple and nonpartisan questions that show you are educated enough to be a part of the body ruling over us.
This is not like the literacy tests that were used deprive minorities the vote until the 1960s. First, if you look at those literacy tests they had very little to do with actual literacy. They were basically trivia quizzes full of trick questions almost no one, literate or not, would have been able to pass. But even if they were a plain literacy test, my ability to read says nothing about my ability to be a knowledgeable citizen capable in partaking in self-governance. A civics test does. As for the claim that either of these ideas, civic tests and stricter residency requirements, are going to be used to deny the vote to African-Americans, much like poll taxes of previous generations, I would answer if you’re just assuming that African Americans know less about the US government, the bigot here isn’t me.
Rule by the people is an amazing idea. But it’s an ideal that carries with it responsibility. Responsibility to be a knowledgeable voter. We should want as many people to vote as possible, but those people need to know what they are voting for and have a stake in the outcome of an election. There are three relatively simple things I think would improve voting in this country. Same-day registration to make voting easier. Stricter residency requirements to ensure people with a stake in the localities are electing the leaders of those localities. And a civics test to make sure our voters, and therefore rulers, are responsible and informed citizens.
Notice I didn’t tackle bigger questions like campaign finance or methods of election. That is a longer discussion for another time. I also want to say that elections in America are usually very good. The voter machines themselves are not getting hacked by the Chinese, the Russians, or George Soros. Millions of people are not voting illegally. There is not widespread voter suppression. If anyone tries to claim that, they’re making excuses for why the election didn’t go their way. That is an action beneath the leaders of the greatest nation on the planet, and anyone who claims voting in America is fundamentally flawed ought to be ignored.
Thank you for reading, please like, comment, and subscribe. I’m working on a couple of this for next week, not sure which one I’ll post. There are a number of big college football games this weekend that should make or break my last couple predictions; I’m curious as to how those will be looking on Sunday. The midterm elections are Tuesday, and we’ll see how right I was about those as well. Hope you have a great weekend, and go be an informed voter.