Should Voters Pass a Test Before Voting?

Published by timdean on

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” So (allegedly) said Winston Churchill. And who’s to disagree?

Exhibit A: the comments to my recent column on the ABC’s Drum, which bemoans that “we have stopped discriminating between argument and sophistry.” Seems few in the comments – even those who appear to agree – attempted to do just that in the spirit of elevating the debate. Instead, it wallowed in the usual name calling and obtuse table thumping. Irony died a little that day.

But what I want to do now is go beyond the call to arms for reasonable people and wonder what to do about the unreasonable ones, given the votes of both are weighted the same.

Often raised in this context is the debate between compulsory versus voluntary voting, such that the disengaged or apathetic are less likely to vote than the engaged and informed.

But I want to sideline that debate for now and get to a more fundamental question of electoral reform: should voters have to pass some kind of test before they qualify to vote?

Whether you have compulsory or voluntary voting, one of the major challenges democracies face in appointing suitable leaders is voter ignorance. An uninformed electorate is open to exploitation by charismatic or populist leaders, or mass hysteria that can sweep a population towards self-destructive ends, or just votes for poor leaders and policies because it doesn’t know any better.

An informed electorate is presumably better able to assess the values and policies of individual politicians and parties and judge whether they’re in the best interests of themselves and the nation, and generally ward off interests or corrupt forces taking power.

As Thomas Jefferson said: “Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”

(Note that, unlike ignorance, voter bias is not a fundamental problem, as democracy seeks not truth, but fair representation. So you can be biased towards your own interests and vote accordingly, and democracy can still function properly.)

One of the responsibilities of the state is to provide sufficient education to all its citizens such that they are capable of making informed voting decisions. But the state can’t force the citizens to do their homework and make informed decisions on voting day. But perhaps it should be able to, in a sense.

Imagine if you were born a non-voting citizen (as we already are), but instead of ticking over to become a fully fledged voter at age 18 (or whatever arbitrary age), you had to pass a civics test in order to qualify to vote?

The test would include the basics of the governmental system in your nation, perhaps some core aspects of law, economics, ethics and whatever other facts were deemed necessary to make a minimally informed voting decision. The bar could be set fairly low, to just rule out those who think we live in a monarchy ruled by shape-shifting lizards, or it could be set higher, to eliminate those who don’t understand what habeas corpus or inflation mean.

Surely, this would diminish the voting pool, but it might mean better informed decisions.

But it could also mean that only a select portion of the electorate are represented, and they might use their power to favour themselves to the disadvantage of the non-voters. They could even stack the test or the education system such that only their preferred clan ever gain voting power.

So there’d need to be checks and balances. First, there’d have to be some constitution that guaranteed sufficient education be offered to all citizens such that they’d qualify to become voters. Secondly, this constitution would only be alterable with a referendum voted on by everyone.

Another check would be to limit the qualified voters’ influence to just one house of parliament. Currently in the UK this is virtually the case with the non-elected House of Lords serving as an upper house to the popularly-elected House of Commons. However, I’m not convinced the UK has it the right way around.

Traditionally, the  popularly-elected lower house is the primary source of new legislation, with the aristocratic/federally-elected upper house serving the primary function of providing oversight and a more tempered view on proceedings (although both houses can introduce bills in most systems). Where the former is presumably a populist rabble, the latter is more esteemed and steeped in the wisdom of ages, unburdened by perilously short electoral cycles.

In a qualified-voter system, it might work better the other way around: the lower house, primarily responsible for creating legislation, could be elected by qualified voters; the upper house, providing supervision of that legislation, could be popularly elected by all citizens, perhaps by a proportional representation system.

This means the members elected to the lower house will be elected by those who are best informed, hopefully leading to a higher calibre of lawmaker. However, to ensure that every citizen had representation, the upper house serves as a check against any legislation that would disadvantage the non-qualified voters in particular.

This way we have the benefits of qualified voters, but with a check against abuse of the system.

Could it work? I really don’t know. It’s more a thought experiment, or a proposal to shift the Overton Window, rather than a genuine proposal. But I reckon it merits consideration, if only to know decisively why we wouldn’t such a system.


JW Gray · 13th September 2012 at 5:58 am

Everyone should have to take critical thinking classes who wants to vote and everyone should be guaranteed to be able to take them. I wouldn’t trust a “standardized test” of any sort. Anyone who wants to be a philosopher king should be allowed to assuming that is what we go for, and there can be certain educational requirements and opportunities involved with that. Same goes for anything less than a philosopher king.

It might be a good idea to collect as much data concerning political success and political education as possible before doing something like this.

If everyone was educated properly, then this might not be such a problem. Of course, those who are “qualified” to vote probably comes in degrees and some people will always be better at it than others.

@EdGibney · 14th September 2012 at 10:21 pm

That’s an interesting idea to interject into the whole argument about the role and design of government – bicameral houses based on smart voters vs. ignorant voters. I only worry about their labeling and inferiority / superiority complexes (which I’ve tried to point out with my over-the-top descriptions).

I’ve toyed with the idea of one house of parliament being confucian in design – the workers / politicians themselves have to pass state designed tests for proficiency in creating laws that work. The other house is still the democratically elected check on that power. What do you think of that idea?

Tuerqas · 24th October 2012 at 5:39 am

I do like Ed’s idea, that politicians need to take a test, but I think both ideas have a separate basic flaw.

On smarts, I love the idea, but I think you have to factor in that 60% voter turnout is humongous today when everyone is allowed to vote. I think the vast majority of the 40%+ are the unengaged voters the bulk of which would fail the test. This would be compounded by the idea that they only get ‘half’ a vote anyway. It would encourage apathy by those already predisposed towards apathy and the people who vote for the ‘smart’ house will always vote for all offices. The elected would still be getting their bread buttered by the rich, not by the ‘test failers’ anyway so I don’t see their interests being regarded by anybody.

On politician tests, the dumbest lawyer practicing in the US passed the bar exam. Coaching, multiple chances, etc. will bar virtually no one with the desire to abuse, I mean, serve the people.

Personally, since reading the book, I believe Heinlein’s Starship Troopers had the best idea. Only people serving in the country’s military gain citizenship status and voting rights. Obviously there are people physically or mentally incapable of serving with current health restrictions, but the assorted engineer corps, could be responsible for public works, all kinds of civic duties from desk jobs at military pay prices. These could have relaxed standards for entry. Also, as part of military training, men and women would be taught enough Gov’t both to elect and be elected. Really, it is not the stupid that I fear in voters, it is the people who have never successfully taken any responsibility.

Tim Dean · 24th October 2012 at 6:28 pm

I actually (in a thought experiment sense) prefer the idea of voters passing a test than politicians. This way no-one is barred from office, but more informed voters will elect more informed politicians (in principle…).

Also, Heinlein’s vision in Starship Troopers gave multiple routes to citizenship besides military service. His vision is thought provoking, but the problem is there may be some ‘civilians’ who never have an opportunity to become citizens, and who are thus excluded from the political process. The system I have proposed has everyone represented at least at some level.

Tuerqas · 25th October 2012 at 12:44 am

I was guessing that we were speaking in a purely theoretical sense like Utopia or pure communism, where self interest, laziness, apathy, etc. has been magically bred out of us humans.. The reality is, we can’t even ask for people to show an ID without voter suppression accusations by half the people in the US.

So from a theoretical standpoint if we could have our druthers, so to speak, I think Heinlein’s idea of making a person have some sort of responsibility to the State for a time is better than any type of test to obtain voting rights. Responsiblity generally forces out apathy and overlaps self interest in ways that make people care about things like voting. A test merely proves that you could understand the issues if you cared, and precludes the people who failed the test whether they listened to the issues(cared) or not.

lotuschou · 16th March 2014 at 12:35 am

Reblogged this on Reflection on learning and commented:
Should citizens be required to take a test before they become a voter?

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