By Charles Davenport Jr.
In July 2013, Brad Friedman at Salon called North Carolina’s new voter ID law “the most extreme anti-voter bill passed by any state since the Jim Crow era.” The author condemned the measure as “draconian,” “horrendous,” and of course, “discriminatory.”
Presumably, it is a “massive restriction on voting rights.” According to the article’s headline, our legislature had passed the “nation’s most restrictive voter suppression law.”
Today, nearly a year later, hysteria remains the norm among the law’s critics. In a recent letter to the editor of these pages, Tara Bloomquist of Jamestown lamented the legislation’s “egregious cut to early voting,” which, she claimed, will “put a hardship on people who work for a living.” (Apparently not: This year’s early voting total eclipsed that of 2010, despite fewer days.)
J.B. Steward of Thomasville claims the Republican-controlled legislature is not only deliberately suppressing the votes of youngsters and the elderly, but also “resegregating the South.”
All three writers — Friedman, Bloomquist and Steward — begin their arguments from a flawed premise: that voter suppression is a bad thing. In their view, the more votes cast, the better. Editorialists and talking heads apply the same dubious reasoning: They instinctively leap to their feet and applaud an unusually high voter turnout; when turnout is low, they lament the apathy of those who, in failing to vote, have neglected a “civic duty.”
What matters, however, is not how many people vote, but whether those who show up at the polls are informed. If only 20 percent of the population has a basic understanding of civics, current events and American history, then only 20 percent of the population should vote. The ignorant among us — and they are legion — should not be allowed within 100 yards of a polling place. In fact, their votes should be actively suppressed, and until they are, the fewer votes cast, the better.
We do not encourage the blind to drive motor vehicles, or high school dropouts to perform brain surgery. Likewise, we should not encourage the uninformed to vote. If Sharon Slothmeister is completely uninformed and spends her time watching “The Real Housewives” and “Honey Boo-Boo,” her civic duty is to stay away from the polls.
Sharon Slothmeister may be a fictional character, but the specter of a benighted population is all too real.
Here is Andrew Romano writing for Newsweek in March 2011: “They’re the sort of scores that drive high school history teachers to drink.” When Newsweek recently asked 1,000 U.S. citizens to take America’s official citizenship test, 29 percent couldn’t name the vice president.
“Seventy-three percent couldn’t correctly say why we fought the Cold War. Forty-four percent were unable to define the Bill of Rights. And 6 percent couldn’t even circle Independence Day on a calendar.”
A few years ago, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute had 14,000 college students and graduates take an exam on basic American history and civics. The results were abysmal: The average score among current students was 51 percent.
You might expect the average score among college graduates to be much higher. But you would be mistaken: Their average was 57 percent — still an F.
I am neither a pollster nor a professional academic, but last year, I asked about a dozen friends, family members and coworkers to take a civics exam — 10 questions I had randomly chosen from the “Naturalization Test” administered to prospective citizens. My small sample was hardly scientific, but the results were similar to the dismal performance of Americans at-large: Most of my subjects correctly answered about four of the 10 questions. Approximately half of the participants have a college degree.
Turnout in Guilford County for this month’s primary election was 15 percent. Editorialists, no doubt, are feverishly pecking away at keyboards, eager to express disappointment over the “low” participation rate, and to remind us how important it is, in a “democracy,” for everyone to get involved, to “make a difference.”
But if only 15 percent of our friends and neighbors are well-informed, a “low” voter turnout is cause for celebration; the indifferent and apathetic among us declined to participate!
This is as it should be. Unfortunately, our public schools (and the university system) have failed to teach history and civics to generations of potential voters.
In an ideal world, the ignorant and the oblivious would be prohibited from voting. Their participation would be actively suppressed. How so? Prospective voters would not only have to provide a photo ID, but also have to pass an exam on American history, civics and current events.
Charles Davenport Jr. lives in Greensboro.
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