Fox News suggested requiring passing a civics test for voting. What does the law say?

September 23, 2014

Race, Voting rights

Elisabeth Hasselbeck

A few days ago, Fox News’ Elisabeth Hasselbeck proposed adding a requirement that people pass a civics test, perhaps the citizenship test, before they are allowed to vote.

Hasselbeck asked her guests with regard to a civics test, “Should it be required?”

Here’s the problem with that idea, which may sound good in theory. It ignores the historical disenfranchisement of minorities through unfair tests. The 1965 Voting Rights Act specifically includes a clause that prohibits tests or devices that unfairly disenfranchise minority voters.

Section 3 (b) states:

“If in a proceeding instituted by the Attorney General under any statute to enforce the guarantees of the fifteenth amendment in any State or political subdivision the court finds that a test or device has been used for the purpose or with the effect of denying or abridging the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color, it shall suspend the use of tests and devices in such State or political subdivisions as the court shall determine is appropriate and for such period as it deems necessary.”

This was necessary because of the unreasonable literacy and civics standards imposed disproportionately on black voters.

Many of the old tests can be seen on this site.

Here are a couple of examples of civics questions used in the Alabama Voter Registration Application and Literacy Test around 1965:

Alabama Voting Test 1 Alabama Voting Test 2

There are plenty of well-qualified voters who would not be able to answer all of these questions correctly.

While some of these might be interesting as high school AP US Government exam questions, they should not all be mandatory knowledge for voting. However, I am not saying Fox News or Elisabeth Hasslebeck advocate this kind of test. The problem is that they did not even mention the legal precedent 1965 Voting Rights and the history of civics/literacy tests for voting.

Furthermore, a variety of problems arise when creating a test for voting:

  • Who makes the tests/questions?
  • Who grades the tests?
  • What is a passing grade?
  • Who chooses the testing sites and testing hours?
  • Can states make their own tests, or does the federal government create one?
  • Do voters have to retake a test every several years, or at every election?
  • How do you ensure that testing standards are applied fairly to all voters?
  • Will organizations start challenging the validity of test results to have votes disqualified?

While it is true that we want a smart electorate voting, historical legal precedent shows that civics/literacy tests were not an ethical or effective solution.

See the Fox News segment below, courtesy Raw Story:

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About jslachman381

I'm a Yale graduate who majored in History of Science, Medicine, and Public Health.

View all posts by jslachman381

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