The Case for a Ballot Test and How to Implement it
Men are not infallible; they err very often. It is not true that the masses are always right and know the means for attaining the ends aimed at. “Belief in the common man” is no better founded than was belief in the supernatural gifts of kings, priests, and noblemen. Democracy guarantees a system of government in accordance with the wishes and plans of the majority. But it cannot prevent majorities from falling victim to erroneous ideas and from adopting inappropriate policies which not only fail to realize the ends aimed at but result in disaster. Majorities too may err and destroy our civilization.
-Ludwig von Mises, Human Action (1949)
The quote above sums up, quite aptly, the reason our Founding Fathers instituted a democratic republic as opposed to a direct democracy. However, as this year has seen record-breaking increases in voter turnout, the less desirable symptoms of democracy are becoming more apparent. Perhaps the most glaring example occurred in the senate runoff elections of early 2021, when the central platform upon which many Democrats ran was to increase pandemic stimulus checks from $600 to $2000, effectively bribing the masses. It’s no surprise they won; who wouldn’t vote for this? If this trend does not reverse, which seems unlikely given New York’s recent push to grant non-citizens suffrage in local elections, the tyranny of the majority will only grow stronger. Despite prevailing sentiment, refining the country’s constituency is not necessarily a bad thing.
Now, of course, if such refinements were to be based upon race, gender, land ownership, or net worth, this would not only be unethical but would likely lead to undesirable outcomes. As readers of Patrick Newman’s Cronyism: Liberty versus Power in Early America, 1607-1849 will be familiar with, it was landed and wealthy moguls like Robert Morris who bolstered anti-liberty institutions like slavery, so clearly wealth is not a beneficial criterion. (Fun fact: Thomas Jefferson attempted to ban the practice despite owning slaves.)
So how do we better facilitate an informed voter base while keeping the qualifying criteria objective and non-discriminatory? Issue a test.
Upon suggesting this idea to a liberal friend and a conservative/libertarian friend, both took issue. The liberal friend protested, “You mean like Jim Crow?” He was referring to 1890-1965, when various Southern States required literacy tests to suppress the African American vote, highly effective given that 76 percent of the southern black population at the time were illiterate. Aside from the fallacious tactic of tethering such a broad idea to this time period in an attempt to portray it as inherently racist (Jim Crow also involved certain classes of individuals being barred from restaurants, employment, and education, though any comparisons to the modern day are strongly dismissed), this concern does have merit.
My conservative/libertarian friend, in response to the proposition of a ballot test, said, “Bro, do you really trust the government to design a good test?” While this rationale appears different from the former, each friend’s critique is rooted in the same concern - distrust in the administrator. Most would agree a racist administrator or a corrupt administrator invalidates the test itself. To solve this problem, employ multiple administrators with competing interests.
Allow Democrats to contribute half of the test question and Republicans to contribute the other half, questions being written by the primary nominees (an analogous system could be implemented for primary elections). Let’s say ten questions, passing score of 70%, and add a bonus question for third parties polling at above 1% (yay Libertarians!), making it eleven questions. To combat a leak of the test questions, have each nominee submit at least 500 questions (third parties 100), so each test will be a random selection from the total batch. If someone is inclined to memorize hundreds of test questions in order to vote for a socialist, at least he or she will learn a small bit about the importance of liberty, individualism, enlightenment philosophy, objectivism, etc. in the process. There’s an added game theory element in that, if one party were to intentionally draft easy questions, it puts them at a disadvantage as the remaining difficult questions are skewed towards the opposing ideology, making their opponents more likely to pass in greater numbers.
It may seem like there’s no way the Democrats would ever support such an initiative, but the reasons they might are twofold. First, many moderate Democrats are not on board with the woke/Green-New-Deal/Defund-the-Police crowd and may look favorably upon a more educated voter base. Second, even progressives will recognize the benefit of subjecting the un-woke to an examination. What better way to enlighten stubborn boomers and alt-right fascists about the importance of expanding social services, the corruptions of systemic racism, and the impending doom of climate change, than by having them study these topics on their own volition? As an added incentive for progressives, a test such as this could justify granting non-citizens the right to vote because qualifying would demonstrate a basic understanding of American ideals.
As a matter of practicality, the implementation of such a ballot test is legal under current laws. LBJ’s Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned literacy tests outright, but allows for voting qualifications given that they do not “deny the right to vote on account of race or color.” Plus, public costs are minimal, essentially the processing fees associated with the Scantron tabs.
Overall, there cannot be many downsides to encouraging adversarial tribes to familiarize themselves with opposing viewpoints before casting their ballot. At a minimum, this may quell some of the hostilities inherent to a society deficient in empathy. At the end of the day, most people agree on the problems plaguing mankind. Politics is just the vessel through which we solve moral dilemmas. A policy such as this ensures a minimum degree of thought and understanding before one comes to the table. To quote a Founding Father:
Educate and inform the whole mass of the people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.