Constitution Daily

Smart conversation from the National Constitution Center

Should voters have to pass a civics test?

April 21, 2011 by Holly Munson


Here’s one idea to rock the vote: “Don’t let ignorant people vote.”

That’s the title of a recent CNN op-ed by LZ Granderson. His idea, as it turns out, is somewhat less provocative than the title—he proposes that we make the U.S. Naturalization Test part of the voter registration process. The hoped-for result: a more informed and engaged—or at least less clueless—group of voters making wiser choices about whom they elect.

Granderson wrote:

“We wouldn’t issue a driver’s license to someone unable to pass the written test, knowing the potential damage that person could do behind the wheel. Why do we look at voting differently?

“. . . I'm not suggesting we kick people out of the political process, only that we require them to have an agreed upon understanding of what that process is. If people are too busy to read up on the government, the Department of Homeland Security is not going to escort them out of the country—or take away away their citizenship. At any point in which ignorant voters are fed up with being on the outside looking in, they can go to the post office, pick up a brochure with all of the questions and answers in it, and study free of charge.”

Harsh? Elitist? “You betcha,” Granderson proclaimed.

But would it be constitutional? The short answer: yes. The Constitution specifies several factors that cannot be used to deny someone the right to vote—most notably, race (15th Amendment), gender (19th Amendment) and age (26th Amendment). No amendment forbids putting citizens to the test before they can register to vote, so the idea is fair game.

But would it be constitutional? The short answer: yes.
Some might wonder, What about our fundamental right to vote? Isn’t that in the Bill of Rights or something? In fact, there is no federal affirmative right to vote. (This was pointed out by the Supreme Court in the Bush v. Gore case of 2000: “The individual citizen has no federal constitutional right to vote for electors for the President of the United States.”)

That is why requirements for voting vary by state—for example, in some states incarcerated felons are not allowed to vote. Even the Voting Rights Act of 1965, although it was instrumental in eliminating various discriminatory voting practices, did not establish an affirmative right to vote. Put simply, requiring citizens to take a “voter’s test” wouldn’t violate our right to vote because technically that right is not guaranteed.

What’s your take on requiring voters to pass a civics test? And what about the affirmative right to vote—should the Constitution explicitly ensure this right? Tell us what you think in the comments below—and locate your elected officials to tell them what you think.


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