Here’s a question: under what circumstances would you consider it valid to take away someone else’s right to vote?
According to Federalist senior editor David Harsanyi’s Washington Post op-ed, the answer is “anyone who knows less about politics than me.” His article is titled “We must weed out ignorant Americans from the electorate,” but keep reading it gets worse. His argument is bad, hypocritical, and (accidentally or otherwise) deeply classist.
Harsanyi’s premise for stripping away the rights of American citizens is that he is smart enough to vote and you are not. I’m not editorializing:
“A person need only survey the inanity of the ongoing presidential race to comprehend that the most pressing problem facing the nation isn’t Big Business, Big Labor, Big Media or even Big Money in politics. It’s you, the American voter. And by weeding out millions of irresponsible voters who can’t be bothered to learn the rudimentary workings of the Constitution, or their preferred candidate’s proposals or even their history, we may be able to mitigate the recklessness of the electorate …If you have no clue what the hell is going on, you also have a civic duty to avoid subjecting the rest of us to your ignorance. Unfortunately, we can’t trust you. [emphasis mine]”
In order to correct this perceived blight on American democracy, Harsanyi suggests a “civics test” that all Americans would have to pass before casting their vote for president. This test would weed out those who should vote from those who should not. Among the test questions he proposes:
“There were 13 original states. Name three.”
“What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?”
“What is freedom of religion?”
How Harsanyi figures the original thirteen colonies would factor into his decision to select a President is a mystery he does not get into, but that’s neither here nor there. Here’s a bonus question he may want to consider, one that does have a bearing on the presidency: What is the Voting Rights Act of 1965?
It begins thus: “No voting qualifications or prerequisite to voting, or standard practice, or procedure shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”
There’s a misconception that the Voting Rights Act gave black citizens the right to vote. That’s not entirely true, as black men had won the right to vote all the way back in 1870. But in the ensuing century, many states — particularly in the South — had invented “literacy tests” under the guise of, wait for it — making sure voters were informed enough to vote. In practice, they were used almost exclusively to weed out (that phrase again!) black voters, and could include questions such as “recite the entire Constitution.” This became the central motivation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famed Selma march, which led to President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Voting Rights Act.
Which is what makes Harsanyi’s idea so puzzling: not only is it not a new idea; it is one that was only recently abolished.
But! Harsanyi protests: “Now, some of you will accuse me of peddling crass elitism. But I say the opposite is true. Unlike the many who depend on ignorant voters to wield and secure their power, I refuse to believe that working-class or underprivileged citizens are any less capable of understanding the meaning of the Constitution or the contours of governance than the supercilious 1-percenters.”
Harsanyi is correct in saying working class and underprivileged citizens are fully capable of understanding the Constitution or the “contours of governance.” But this begs the question as to why he feels the need to assure his readers of this. Indeed, in the very next paragraph, Harsanyi writes, “we also must remember the ugly history of poll taxes and other prejudicial methods that Americans used to deny black citizens their equal right to vote.”
He does not mention that his very proposal is one of those “other prejudicial methods” we must “remember,” but again, Harsanyi is clarifying that he’s not intentionally singling out minority groups, even as he makes it clear he wants to create a new social caste: those who deserve the right to vote and those who don’t. The fact that Harsanyi says he’s not elitist doesn’t make it true.
In 1965, Senator Allen Ellender of Louisiana argued against the Voting Rights Act by saying it would allow “incompetents [to] gain control of the political processes in the South or in the United States.” This is the sort of language that makes stripping rights away from American citizens seem “sensible”. By claiming that his own knowledge of the “contours of governance” make him more qualified to vote for a President than someone who can’t name three of the original thirteen states, Harsanyi sets up an elitist class of those who can pass a civics test and those who can’t — which, in his world, is a class of those who know what’s good for them and a class who doesn’t. By his logic, this creates two classes in America: those who deserve the right to vote and those who don’t. Or, as he puts it, “If you forsake the power of information, you have no standing to tell the rest of us how to live our lives. Don’t vote.”
This is a baffling leap in logic. If we only dolled out rights to those who can prove they “deserve” them, then why stop with voting? We should require bloggers to display a basic understanding of grammar and syntax before hitting publish. We should make sure gun owners can shoot at least two out of ten clay pigeons before getting licensed. “But,” the proletariat may cry, “you can’t just start taking away people’s rights!” A fair point. It is frankly shocking to hear a staunch Republican — generally the self-proclaimed vanguards of personal rights and liberties — advocating for the explicit reduction thereof.
But that’s not even the biggest problem with this argument. The biggest problem is Harsanyi’s curious assumption that people who can rattle off trivia about the Constitution and American history are better equipped for choosing a President than those who can’t. Harsanyi does not go into his basis for such reasoning, but it can’t be the current election. According to Politico, in six statewide polls, Donald Trump has overwhelmingly carried college-educated Republicans. In another six, he was their second-place choice. On the Democrat side, Hillary Clinton’s support goes up among voters with higher education degrees.
Being college educated isn’t necessarily a marker of political trivia, but being a politician is. And among politicians, Trump has managed to do quite well, thank you. So if we’re going to start weeding out “ignorant voters,” Constitutional lore is clearly not a reliable barometer. In terms of intelligence, you’d be better of weeding out people who bought a ticket to The Huntsman: Winter’s War, or people who unironically share this meme on Facebook, or — while we’re at it — people who once said Glenn Beck’s The Blaze would “do better” than the Denver Post.
Those suggestions are ludicrous, because the idea of limiting the right to vote is ludicrous. American history is riddled with people in privilege (racial, economic, education, etc.) attempting to limit the voices of people without it. Harsanyi can deny that his proposal is actually part of his legacy, and he would hardly be the first to do so, but he protesteth too much. A democracy that only allows certain people to vote is not a democracy at all.