Who Gets to Vote?

July 7, 2011

So… age or intelligence? What should be the basis of who gets the right to vote?

I’m going to say neither of those!

As a youth rights activist and founder of #16tovote on the 16th, I often hear that the voting age should be replaced with some sort of test one must pass to get the right to vote at any age. This way, at least only those smart enough or informed enough will decide the government and it’s not ageist.

Eh… not so much.

Proponents of test-instead-of-voting-age rarely seem to have a clear idea of what this test would be and are dismissive of how extremely easy it would be to abuse it, to end up disenfranchising people based on ideology, location, education level, or just plain test-taking ability.

And what would it be testing? US History? What about it exactly? Should someone be disenfranchised for, say, forgetting which President caused the Trail of Tears? Or what about questions about historical events whose details are up for a lot of debate? If such a test for voting were in place, would then have to be extremely basic questions like “who was the first President?” But something like that is common knowledge anyway. Someone who knows that could still very well be “incapable of voting” (whatever someone’s definition of that is). And even the few people who might not know that may still have pressing reasons to vote on something.

Maybe not a history test then. It’s also been suggested voters should demonstrate they know what the candidates they are voting on actually believe. Just one problem. Pop quiz! What’s John McCain’s stance on abortion? What’s Mitt Romney’s stance on healthcare? What’s Obama’s stance on LGBT rights and same-sex marriage? Good questions, seeing as those, plus others like it, are ambiguous. These politicians have been on both sides of those issues. Plenty of candidates flip-flop seemlessly or are even intentionally ambiguous or vague on these issues. Even without a voting test, this is a common annoyance for us average voters. It wouldn’t help if a misstep in navigating this political hellhole could also cost us our voting rights!

Then there’s a basic IQ or literacy test. Nothing to do with politics or history. Because apparently dyslexics or the learning disabled don’t get to have a voice in society. Or blind people, for that matter. As for IQ, what most people fail to realize is that like most other methods of measuring people mentally it is inexact and often used for prejudicial purposes. Hell, it was originally created just for young students in order to help figure out what areas they needed help with, but has since spiraled out of control into other areas where it doesn’t belong. Using it to decide to deny someone their voting rights would be a most horrendous abuse of it.

There are other examples of proposed voting competence tests, but they all have the same pitfalls. In many cases, they decide voter eligibility on unrelated abilities or on method or reasons for voting. Voters vote for a reason, and they shouldn’t be blocked because someone else decided their reading comprehension or political savviness isn’t up to par. Or that they aren’t voting for the right reasons or the right way.

But of course, as we have currently, instead of all that, we just decide anyone under 18 is incapable of voting (whatever that means) and everyone 18+ is. That whatever test there is, all under-18s fail and all 18+ people pass. Age is a separate measure from political knowledge or literacy, but you often get opponents of lowering the voting age still making that case, that the voting age is because people under it don’t meet whatever the speaker’s personal preferences of “maturity” or political knowledge or whatever are. Or you also get those in favor of lowering the voting age saying it should be around 13 because that’s around puberty. What sexual maturity has to do with ability to vote, I have no clue!

Instead of saying people without certain civics knowledge should not be allowed to vote, we should be asking why so many people in a country governed by voting don’t have this ability, and seek to rectify that. Not to just cast them off as unworthy, especially if, despite this, they still do want to vote. And they should still be allowed. It is their right. They are governed and they should be allowed to consent to that governance just like everyone else.

And absolutely anyone setting these vague voting eligibility rules believes themselves to be worthy, while many others who do the same would rule them out. It’s yet another fear that, you know, people who think differently from you or haven’t lived as long as you have just as much a say in the government as you do! And as such, it’s incredibly un-American to want to silence them.

So what do I recommend? No voting age or test at all? So that even a 4-year-old can wander into the polling place and cast her ballot? Some youth rights people say things like “she can’t read the ballot anyway, she can’t reach it, she wouldn’t want to”. Which, honestly, is still very disenfranchising language. Supporting her having the right to vote must include support for her having the ability. Voting right now, being open to only adults, is built for adults. If young kids had the franchise too, then the voting system would have to change to accommodate their smaller sizes, lesser likelihood of being able to read the choices, their lesser ability to travel to the polling place. Perhaps pre-K classes could go to the polls together and file one by one into little child-sized voting booths with voting machines designed for people who may not be able to read well, that maybe lights up the candidate’s names and says out loud who they are. Whatever the case, even though even with adults there are lots of accessibility concerns (lots of people’s polling places are accessible only by car, essentially disenfranchising those who don’t drive and can’t get a ride and can’t mail in their ballot, for example), accessibility would become a much bigger issue with enfranchised children. You can’t just say they have the right to vote. You have to make sure they are able to if they want to. That will have to come with a lot more youth liberation advances down the road, which I should think would be in place by the time abolishing the voting age entirely would be at all feasible. Hell, just lowering it to 16, which is virtually free of these extra accessibility issues, is hard enough!

And saying someone shouldn’t vote because they’ll vote the same way as their parents is the stupidest fucking excuse ever. OMG, someone might vote the same as someone else! Oh noes! Again, it’s more micromanaging people’s exact reasons for why they cast their ballot, when really, it’s their own business why.

So what do I suggest? No tests, definitely. Voting age? Well, I’d like to see it abolished eventually and certainly encourage dialogue on it and ideas on how it would work (i.e. aforementioned accessibility issues) and what it would look like. For now, focus should be on efforts to lower it. I wouldn’t mind seeing it lowered to 12 or even 10 as things are. And, hell, once it’s that low, it’ll give a clearer idea of what going even lower might look like and how to deal with accessibility issues and any concerns over voting coercion (admittedly something little kids would be more vulnerable to barring any major societal shifts toward youth liberation, though development would still be an issue). Or maybe instead of abolition could drop it to 5 or something. It gets murky when talking about kids that young.

Some say with young kids voting, candidates would get voters through promises of free ice cream. Not an unreasonable guess. Replace that ice cream with healthcare and same-sex marriage, and suddenly it’s politics!

This has been Day 45 of the 100 Days of Summer, Round 11.

5 thoughts on “Who Gets to Vote?”

  1. You’re required to take a citizenship test in order to become a naturalized American citizen and gain the franchise that way, although some of the questions on that don’t seem very related to being a knowledgeable enough citizen (e.g. they’re too specific or ask inane details). Would it be more fair just to require all prospective voters to take a citizenship test instead of letting some citizens automatically gain the franchise while others have to test into it?

  2. Good question, and I realize I did leave out any mention of the existing citizenship tests. If not a test, perhaps a requirement for citizenship then would be for the prospective citizen to live in the US as if a citizen for the number of years the voting age is. Not advocating this, just thinking aloud. Of course, with all the hoops one must jump through to become a US citizen, it often does take that long anyway. Or maybe a combination of voting age and citizenship test then, like if the voting age were 12, then people under 12 could still vote if they pass the test, but at 12+ they no longer need to. Though still ageist, of course.

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