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Modernizing American Democracy for the 21st Century, Part IV

This is part IV of a four-part series.

By Dr. Gary Deel
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University

In Part I, we discussed why the Founding Fathers designed America’s government as a representative democracy, and how that has led to big problems with corruption. In Part II, we explored why a direct democracy without any modifications could actually leave us worse off than representative democracy due to voter incompetence. In the third part of this series, we discussed voting proficiency tests as an idea for tweaking the pure democratic model in order to mitigate corruption and ensure that only informed citizens could vote on specific issues.

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Now, in the fourth and final part, we will address some of the most common and understandable arguments against voting proficiency tests, as well as how such concerns might be addressed.

The first concern is the understandable perception of similarities between subject matter-specific proficiency tests for voting and the Jim Crow-era literacy tests, used by the Southern states after the Civil War to keep newly liberated slaves and free blacks from voting.

Voting Tests Thinly Veiled Mechanisms to Keep Newly Liberated Slaves and Free Blacks from the Polls

The tests were purported to be well-intentioned, unbiased measures of minimum intelligence that should be required to vote. But in fact, those tests were nothing more than thinly veiled mechanisms to exploit the illiteracy of former slaves and keep them from participating in the democratic process. These tricks and their aims were and are utterly repugnant. It should be said unequivocally that no voting proficiency test should ever be designed in such a way as to disproportionately marginalize any minority group or protected class.

But any good lawyer can tell you that there are actually two kinds of discrimination. There is the “disparate treatment” kind, where discrimination is the intent; case in point, the Jim Crow era literacy tests. Then there is the “disparate impact” kind, where the offender has only good intentions, but discrimination results nonetheless, often due to unanticipated dynamics and skews in the outcomes.

What Would Stop Voting Proficiency Tests from Disproportionately Discriminating against Minorities?

While we might be tempted to argue whether “disparate treatment” is worse than “disparate impact” and by how much, the bottom line is that both are equally illegal. So this brings us to the second item of concern: What would stop voting proficiency tests from disproportionately discriminating against minorities? This is always a difficult area to parse, as there are many variables in play.

Take the example of a proficiency test for policymaking related to the practice of medicine. Now, presumably such a test would be designed so that medical professionals would be expected to pass more easily than others with no such background of expertise. And if we agree that we would want well-trained medical professionals making policy decisions about medicine in our society, then this is as it should be.

It so happens that among practicing physicians, reports that only about four percent are black. Whereas African Americans make up roughly 15 percent of the national population. If we expect that most of the people who pass the medical voting proficiency test would be doctors, we would also expect that the proportion of eligible voters in this field who are black will be about four percent. We wouldn’t expect it to be 15 percent because the baseline here is not the general population, but rather the professional medical community.

An entirely separate and no-less-legitimate discussion could be had about why African Americans are dramatically under-represented in the medical profession. This is an issue of concern and one that deserves our attention to ensure equal opportunities for all people regardless of race, color national origin, or any other protected class.

A third reason why the idea of voting tests stirs strong emotions is that standards would obviously need to be defined regarding what is and is not a “sufficient” level of knowledge or competence for voting on an issue; that becomes a very slippery slope.

Heated Discussion Surrounds Disenfranchisement of People Declared Mentally Incompetent

Even now, there is heated discussion surrounding the issue of disenfranchisement of people who have been declared mentally incompetent by a court of law. Key questions arise, such as how we define “mental incompetence” and who gets to decide when someone is or is not mentally incompetent.

The idea that anyone intellectually qualified to vote should be denied the right to do so is abhorrent. However, acknowledging the difficulty in determining such standards, I suspect most people would still agree that some minimum intellectual standard should exist somewhere on the continuum. If you think you would reject this premise, consider the following hypothetical:

Imagine that tomorrow morning you awake to find that overnight everyone else in America suffered massive head injuries and could now be appropriately described as severely mentally incapacitated, with the average IQ hovering around 50 and the typical adult possessing the mental acuity of a toddler. Now imagine you and all of these people going to the polls to elect a president and vote on critical policy issues. How comfortable would you be in this situation?

This was not meant to disparage anyone who suffers from mental incapacity or to make light of serious mental health issues. Such circumstances are often tragic, and we owe those affected by these kinds of conditions (and their families) our sincerest compassion. But this fictional scenario does shine a light on the absurdity of the idea that there should be no minimum intelligence standard whatsoever.

I want nothing more than for all people living with mental disabilities to receive the utmost care, consideration and kindness from the communities in which they live. But at the same time I would not want them making major decisions for society. And this has nothing to do with respect for rights or consideration for the vulnerable. Rather, it is a simple, pragmatic risk-benefit analysis. It is for the same reason that, although I support Second Amendment rights, I would not hand a mentally incapacitated person a loaded gun. The dangers are too high, and rational thinking must inform a line between enfranchisement of the impaired and preservation of basic societal stability. Where the real issue lies is determining how far from the endpoints on the spectrums of proficiency those lines should be drawn.

We might be OK with others being ostracized from policymaking conversations based on a lack of sufficient knowledge, especially if such exclusion conform to our inner political narratives. But what about when you are the one who is excluded? If history is any indication, we probably would be far less accepting of the same disenfranchisement for ourselves. Indeed, egos would likely be one of the biggest obstacles to such a paradigm.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of challenges or arguments against voting proficiency tests. And as an author, I should state clearly that I am not necessarily endorsing such tests as a simple or easy solution to our current governmental challenges. My aim with this article was to discuss ideas, not sell them. But if we are introspective enough to recognize that there are serious problems with our current democratic model, and if we are open-minded enough to consider new ideas in good faith – even some that are highly controversial — then we might just stand a chance of changing our government model for the better in this still new century.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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