A nation ignorant and free, that never was and never shall be. Thomas Jefferson
Here’s a notion that should set progressive hearts palpitating, perhaps even inducing a case or two of apoplexy. Should citizens deemed mentally (not physically) incapable of caring for themselves be granted a full franchise in a republican democracy?
In these pages this notion has risen implicitly over the years, and most recently occurred to me again during a thread on food stamps that developed in the comment stream of ‘Mindbending Marijuana’. There I was asked whether I supported foodstamps, the 80% hidden component that has historically been included in past farm bills, and that was recently excised from the current House version going through Congress. I repeat an edited version of my reply.
For government to determine your needs and allocate your transfer payments for you is more than demeaning in my eyes. As such, it is also society's judgment on your mental condition. I feel that if you are incapable of 1) correctly allocating your monies (a mental task) to care for yourself, and 2) remain in a chronic situation in which you are under the care of others, then that should impact your franchise as a citizen in some significant manner. In short, a deficient mentality affects all of one's decisions, and not decisions arbitrarily assigned to be faulty in these domains but perfectly good in those domains.
Over the last forty some years we have witnessed the political purchasing power of welfare in all of its various forms. The most obvious aspect and one that has a growing momentum is transfer payments that now seeks to have government manage our healthcare needs. The summary effect of all these ‘benefits’ is the gathering and exploitation of the mendicants who see themselves as the beneficiaries of certain political ideologies and politicians. I am on record for saying that we have already passed the tipping point on our democracy tilting toward socialism as a waypoint to autocracy.
But let’s consider that I am wrong, that through some restructuring of how we voters choose our representatives we can avoid our apparent fate. How do we do this? I suggest that we reconsider the matter of voting franchise and how it might be exercised in our republic. And for that I pose the following.
Consider the working mother of a contemporary family. She holds down a respectable job, raises her children, is a functional life partner to her husband, keeps the house and its accounts, volunteers/participates in community activities, and manages to stay up on the issues that affect her community and nation.
Then take someone whom society deems to be sufficiently mentally impaired that they cannot be trusted to manage their own budget, cannot spend appropriate sums for their divers needs like health, housing and food even if the money is given to them, cannot hold a job, and perhaps has other cognitive deficiencies like marginal literacy and comprehensive innumeracy which prevents even a cursory understanding of the issues facing community and country. In short, society has already put in place structures and organizations that are required to maintain this person from destitution or resorting to crime. And these funds are doled transfer payments supplied by the likes of the woman described above.
These two people are as different as can be in the sense of how they relate to their source of sustenance. One is productive and proficient, and the other is existentially inept. Yet when they enter their respective voting booths, they are deemed by the state to be equal – the inept getter’s vote can and will effectively cancel the provider’s vote. (We note that we already discriminate in franchising certain kinds of citizens - e.g. children and the institutionalized insane.)
Bryan Caplan described what this kind of equality (as opposed to equality in front of the law) has already brought about in The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies (2007). This scholarly work has been assiduously ignored by all public figures of every political stripe. I offer it again as a starting point in reconsidering the franchise of citizens in a sustainable democratic republic.
[15jul13 update] Asked to offer my own thoughts on a citizen qualifying for the voting franchise, I offer the following thoughts as a rough starting point in order to invite thoughtful criticism and/or constructive edits. First a couple of observations –
• Current suffrage is not universal; we already deny the vote to children, felons, and the institutionally insane, among others. The under-aged and insane are presumably prohibited because they don’t have the mental capacity to adequately understand and process the information required to make a reasoned decision, and therefore may fall prey to being influenced by others to vote against their best interest, or to amplify another’s vote.
• The seminal assumption that underelies the vote, is that the voter understands what he’s voting for when he submits his ballot. In other words, that it is a duly considered statement of freely expressed individual preference.
My nostrums on who should be allowed to vote are conditioned entirely on the second point above - that the voter has the capacity to independently acquire minimal information upon which to base his vote (please note that he doesn't even have to demonstrate such understanding). And to give greater assurances of that capacity, a set of proxy skills should be demonstrated by the prospective voter before being granted the franchise. The set of exact requirements, as determined by the several states, should then be based on the following points.
• Only citizens may vote.
• The vote shall not be denied any citizen on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, educational background, ownership of property, status of wealth/indebtedness, or condition of un/employment.
• No one institutionalized for mental or criminal reasons (including being on parole) shall be granted suffrage. However, once being released, full voting privileges will be restored upon passing the applicable literacy/numeracy test described below.
• Voters shall pass a basic literacy test (similar to drivers’ license tests) before granted suffrage, and periodically (say every ten years) thereafter. Voters must demonstrate ‘functional literacy’ as defined by the Dept of Education (see NAAL, the longitudinal survey of adult literacy conducted by the National Center for Educational Statistics). The test shall also include and/or be given within the context of the informational requirements demanded of naturalized citizens as determined by the federal government.
• Voters shall demonstrate minimal numeracy (‘numerical literacy’) skills in basic arithmetic (add, subtract, multiply, divide) including understanding what is a percentage. Again see the NCES longitudinal survey.
• There is no limit to the number of times the test may be taken.
• The voter eligibility status will be reflected on a person’s driver’s license, state issued ID, or other such commonly carried form of identification that can be presented to poll or voter registration workers (or its PIN entered for online voting or by snail mail).