Addressing Voter Ignorance: What Would a Mandatory Civic Literacy Test Look Like?

Olivia O'Donnell, Columnist

It appears as though no stone has been left unturned in discerning Mr. Trump’s capacity to govern the United States of America as president: time and time again, he has shown himself to be an inept leader who incites his base with crude, racial rhetoric and reforms. And time, as if a great magnifying glass, sharpens the blurriness of cause and effect, illuminating motives and tactics that allowed the demagogue to ascend the presidential throne. Trump, although incompetent and civically unaware, cunningly played on a decades-long public mistrust of the media by stirring up a witch hunt aimed at its annihilation. With 46% of voters believing that the media fabricates stories about the president, disenchantment seems to be synonymous with popular news outlets.

With an increasing divide between the public and credible news sources, where is information acquired? Relatives, Facebook friends, or is it completely disregarded–the truth ostracized as emotion takes its turn at bat? This wariness regarding reputable media organizations marks more than just a lingering suspicion: it indicates a growing disregard for truthful information, which therefore contributes to widespread voter ignorance. And if voters cannot discern between fact and fiction, how can they be trusted to vote for a candidate running to be the president of the U.S.?

Ascertaining a solution to this dilemma of incompetence may potentially take its cue from a national education initiative, wherein every voter must participate in a mandatory civic literacy test before each local and national election. The result is as follows: only the civically competent voters would be able to cast their ballot while those who failed would be prohibited from having a say. The test, which would cover the fundamentals of civic education, ensures that voters are equipped to participate in electoral politics; undeniably, voter education allows for one to exercise his or her political will through the electoral process. Without a proper foundation, voters may face a lack of preparation or motivation to participate in the U.S.’s democratic system, allowing the threat of unqualified representation to settle in its wake.

Unfortunately, while this approach might effectively contribute to an increased civic education, it is not without its flaws. Firstly, the purpose of this test would be to establish a firm foundation of civic awareness, which possibly entails time being spent studying in order to pass the test. Those without access to the internet, books, or an adequate schooling would consistently face barriers that inhibit their educational experience, as opposed to those with access to the aforementioned resources. Also, introducing such a test might be seen as a roadblock; instead of locating the detour route, one might decide that the time and energy needed is outweighed by pre-existing commitments–and turn back towards home. Logistically, such a test would likely result in a diminished voter turnout with a myriad of factors preventing one from showing up at the ballot box, thus opting out of the voting process altogether. Hence, it is inherently anti-democratic as all eligible members of the population may not pass, or spend the time trying to pas, the test and as a result must refrain from the process of electing representatives.

The circulation of a mandatory test could weed out the civically illiterate, but the result would compromise the nation’s democratic values. In assessing the country’s current need of civic education, it is clear that more citizens need to develop their understanding of the government and the electoral process. Yet, the voting process is just one of the means in which citizens may participate in the democracy. Voters and citizens should also be encouraged to engage in political processes routinely. If each person makes a concerted effort to advance his or her civic knowledge, then the problem of widespread civic illiteracy may no longer plague the nation.