Pre-1965 Literacy Tests

For some rather remarkable examples of barriers to vote that existed prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act, I would recommend the following:  Are You "Qualified" to Vote? Take a "Literacy Test" to Find Out

FILED UNDER: Quick Takes, US Politics
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Troy University. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter

Comments

  1. al-Ameda says:

    I realize that this Supreme Court believes that we’re past all of that that now, so they took the initiative to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act, but really … were not very far removed from a more modern restoration of vote suppression.

  2. Pinky says:

    I know we’ll never have literacy tests in the US again, but I wish we would. They’re not inherently unfair – like most things, they are bad if abused, but serve a real purpose if done fairly. It’s an interesting balance, in the US, that we call for equal rights nationally, but leave most of the conditions for voting up to the localities. Usually that’s for the best. I wonder if a national voting test would be a good idea though.

  3. Tony W says:

    @Pinky: I think there is room for improvement, but literacy or civics tests are not the answer. I do think we should require high-school graduates to be able to pass the same test immigrants pass when they become citizens.

    Another oddity of voting in America – I own homes in two states, but can only vote my interests in the state in which I live. My property taxes, community safety, etc. in the other state is subject to the whims of the voters who live there permanently.

    I’m not suggesting we give the vote to property owners like we did originally, but it feels like there ought to be some degree of voting rights for remote property owners on issues of interest to land holders.

    Politics is messy – and crucial, I think that’s why I enjoy it so much.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    @Pinky:

    They’re not inherently unfair – like most things, they are bad if abused…

    I would agree with that statement in theory. In practice I would regard it as inevitable that such a thing would be abused. And even if the test were absolutely fair and valid, it would be impossible to avoid charges of bias.

  5. Pinky says:

    @Tony W:

    I do think we should require high-school graduates to be able to pass the same test immigrants pass when they become citizens.

    Agreed.

    @gVOR08:

    And even if the test were absolutely fair and valid, it would be impossible to avoid charges of bias.

    Also, agreed.

  6. TheColourfield says:

    @Pinky: Yes because there is absolutely no history of abuse at the local level.

    Maybe if they can’t pass the test they can at least get 3/5 of a vote

  7. An Interested Party says:

    Literacy Tests…the photo ID requirement of the past…we should make it as easy as possible for all eligible voters to vote, not harder…

  8. @Pinky:

    I know we’ll never have literacy tests in the US again, but I wish we would.

    As one who both studies democracy and educates for a living, I can understand the desire for as educated an electorate as is possible.

    However, at the end of the day the goal should be the allow free and open ability of citizens to access and utilize their basic rights. Voting is, without a doubt, one of those rights. That some people exercise it without full information is just part of the deal.

    How much knowledge and education is enough?

    When faced with the fact that not all voters are as educated as one might like, I go to Churchill: Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried.

  9. Pinky says:

    @TheColourfield: Did I claim there wasn’t local abuse? No. I was actually talking about the opposite, that this might be something that has to be done (if at all) at the national level.

  10. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Pinky: @Steven L. Taylor: More to the point Dr. Taylor is alluding to, how often is “I wish we had a (fill-in your favorite voter validation tool)” just a code for “people who don’t agree with me shouldn’t be able to vote?”

    Frankly, for the people who want to go that way, I wish they’d just be open about it instead of couching it in terms of “protecting us from voter fraud,” “instant runoff balloting to *ensure* a majority” (by telling people who don’t vote D or R that their vote doesn’t REALLY count til they do), etc.

    Not accusing you, Pinky, just sayin’…

  11. DrDaveT says:

    @Pinky:

    leave most of the conditions for voting up to the localities. Usually that’s for the best

    It is? Really? Do you have any evidence whatever for that assertion?

    From everything I’ve seen, there is more corruption at the state level than at the federal level, and more corruption at the local level than at the state level. Always. The burden should be on those who want to devolve a certain power to the lower level to prove (a) that there is a positive reason why it would be better to do it at the lower level, and (b) that it will be implemented equitably if done at the lower level.

  12. James P says:

    These are all very simple tests which any reasonably informed person should EASILY be able to pass. I don’t see what the issue is.

  13. DrDaveT says:

    @James P:

    These are all very simple tests which any reasonably informed person should EASILY be able to pass.

    You apparently aren’t literate yourself, then, or you’d have understood this part:

    Your application was then reviewed by the three-member Board of Registrars — often in secret at a later date. They voted on whether or not you passed. It was entirely up to the judgment of the Board whether you passed or failed. If you were white and missed every single question they could still pass you if — in their sole judgment — you were “qualified.” If you were Black and got every one correct, they could still flunk you if they considered you “unqualified.”

    I don’t see what the issue is.

    Yeah, we know.

  14. Pinky says:

    @Just ‘nutha’ ig’rant cracker: How many people think that way? I have no reason to assume either way. In this particular case, I haven’t seen any serious movement toward literacy tests or citizenship-type tests.

  15. Tillman says:

    The only poll test I’ll allow is the the Asch Paradigm. Only the people who correctly identify the matching lines get to vote.

    Should anyone suggest I have an agenda against the blind and nearsighted, let me say to them, “why not?”

  16. James P says:

    @DrDaveT: OK, I”d grant you that there should be more transparency in the evaluation of the tests. However, I see no problem whatsoever with the actual test itself.

  17. Pinky says:

    @James P: As a practical matter, there will never be literacy tests in the US again. So the specifics (of what should be on one) don’t matter.

  18. Pinky says:

    @Tillman: I just read the link about the Asch Paradigm. I wonder what the results of such a test would be today. On the one hand, I think we’re all more self-conscious and desperate for “likes”, but on the other, we’re more aware of the possibility of “trolling”.

  19. Tillman says:

    @Pinky: Frankly it’s a great idea for a short story and not a great one for real life, but while we might be more aware of structural tricks like Asch I submit that being in-person for it would remove some of our defenses.

  20. Pinky says:

    @Tillman: I just happened to see an old Twilight Zone episode last night that revolved around people having differing details of a plane crash. It somehow seems related. Issues of perception and group dynamics are great fodder for fiction. And actually, thinking about this, these are elements you’ll find in a jury room drama. I’m sure lawyers have studied this kind of interaction closely.

  21. @Pinky:

    I wonder what the results of such a test would be today.

    When the results were redone in 2005 using MRIs, they discovered that the Asch effect occurs entirely within the perceptual part of the brain:

    What Other People Say May Change What You See

    The people who conform aren’t consciously going “Well I know that line isn’t the same size, but I’ll say it is to go along with everyone else”. No, their brain is actually warping their perception of reality so that the lines actually do look the same size to them.

  22. @Stormy Dragon: Heck, in a similar vein consider the recent debate over a certain dress.