are you fit to be a citizen?

My post about elitism elicited a few negative comments, but also led to an interesting side discussion about the qualifications required to vote in the US. The only qualification to vote in the US is to be a registered voter.  The exact requirements to be a registered voter may vary slightly from state to state, but the usual requirements are that you are 18 years of age on the date of the election, are a resident of the district in which you wish to vote for a set period of time before the election (30 days or so) and be a US citizen.  Those are hardly insurmountable barriers to becoming eligible to choose the man (or, someday, the woman) who will have the world’s largest nuclear arsenal at their disposal.  Should something more be required?

Should the age level to vote be raised or lowered? I don’t see the 26th Amendment being changed in the near future.  Should the residency test be changed?  Probably nobody can argue with the idea that you need to live in the district in which you vote for at least a day or two before you vote there.  Maybe the requirement could be standardized across the states, or lengthened to 60 days, but the basic requirement seems fair.

But what about being a US citizen?
I won’t go into the minute details (you can see Wikipedia’s article on the subject here) but you can become a citizen by birth (either on US soil, or to a US citizen parent) or by naturalization.  That’s oversimplified, but here is where we see a distinction – a naturalized citizen is required to study civics and pass an exam, as well as taking an oath:

“I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the armed forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.”

And the questions you need to answer to become a naturalized citizen? I looked at a study guide and the questions ranged from easy to difficult.  Here are a few, and in brackets my honest appraisal of whether I knew the answer:

  • How many changes or amendments are there to the Constitution? (off the top of my head, I don’t know)
  • Can you name the two senators from your state? (yes)
  • How many representatives are there in Congress? (I knew this one)
  • What is the Bill of Rights? (I know what it is – the first ten amendments – but after the second I get a bit fuzzy as to what each one of these amendments guarantees.  Quick, what’s the 7th Amendment? )
  • Can you name the 13 original states? (I could probably stumble through the east coast states and get most of them right)
  • According to the Constitution, a person must meet certain requirements in  order to be eligible to become President. Name one of these requirements.  (naming one is easy – naming all might be difficult).
  • What color are the stripes [on the flag]?(duh)
  • What do the stripes on the flag mean?  (um, red is the blood of patriots and white symbolizes truth or justice or something?)
  • How many states are there in the Union?  (50, at least until Alaska secedes)
  • What is the 4th of July?  (celebration of the defeat of the Kingdom of Great Britain. ED: I didn’t want to make it seem I was a complete idiot here – I was trying to make a joke, but it’s not a good one, as plonkee pointed out in the comments.  It’s the celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence… )

I wonder how many natural-born citizens could pass this test and therefore be eligible to vote. My suspicion is that many of us would not.  Political involvement is, of course, already somewhat subject to a threshold of interest; many citizens never bother to register and many registered voters never bother to vote, and many voters don’t vote in every election.

So should natural-born citizens be required to take the test and make the oath when they register to vote? I think certain elements of the test are too hard or too vague, and certain elements are too easy, but it at least would make people learn these facts once in their life.  The barrier could be set low – 30% correct? – but at least it might spark awareness in voters of a few key issues.  The oath is more problematic – what the hell does “I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law” actually mean?

Tests for life

Making sure that voters are well-informed citizens does not make the hot list of issues right now. Obviously having an ill-informed citizenry didn’t hurt the nation in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, so there’s no reason to worry about this now.   The addition of a voting test would also open the door to other tests, not all of them so useful:

  • Requiring a basic knowledge of personal finance before allowing someone to get a high school diploma
  • Asking anyone who wants to have a baby to demonstrate they can take care of a Baby Alive Baby Go Bye Bye for a few days (throw in an alarm clock that goes off randomly 2-3 times per night)
  • Senior citizen driver’s license renewals including a driving test every 2 years – or not even just senior citizens
  • Mastery of English sufficient to read street signs and public documents
  • Genetic tests to identify people who might pass on hereditary diseases
  • Tests of ideological purity before getting a government job
  • Nutrition quizzes before providing health insurance to anyone

… and so on (in case it wasn’t obvious, I was trying to move from reasonable to not-reasonable tests in that list).  Testing people for competency in any area is always subject to the bias and prejudice of the test-writer.  If you think that requiring a basic knowledge of personal finance to be tested is a good idea, I wouldn’t disagree – but what if the test was underwritten by Countrywide?  What if it was underwritten by Visa?  What if the panel of “financial experts” who wrote the test included Dick Fuld (former CEO of Lehman Brothers) and George Bush (Harvard MBA, ’75)?

It’s easy to set a threshold for non-native citizens, since despite the tightening of immigration laws, our foundering economy and sporadic outbreaks of xenophobia this is still THE ultimate country of destination for emigrants the world over. And for those of us born here we are – literally – “grandfathered” in.  Our parents, grandparents or in my family’s case great-great-great-etc.-grandparents made the effort, passed the tests, overcame the resentment towards immigrants and secured our future to live in the US.  I don’t see a future where we suddenly start testing native citizens for much of anything (except, apparently, the right to drive a motor vehicle once when you’re 16 and then practically never again).  But it doesn’t hurt to imagine that at least once, before stepping into a voting booth, someone would ask us how many presidents we have at a time and expect the right answer.  But it would also be nice if we bothered to find out on our own.