Civic Literacy Tests: Poll Taxes Redux

11/21/2007 11:28 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

By Andrew Stengel

This piece was produced for HuffPost's OffTheBus by NYU School of Law's Brennan Center for Justice.

You really have to hand it to Jonah Goldberg, the National Review's columnist and conservative policy stalking horse. In an op-ed column in Saturday's New York Post (I read it for the sports articles!), he actually proposed a civic literacy exam to qualify to vote. Therefore, according to Goldberg, eligibility to vote could hinge upon familiarity with say, the Voting Rights Act--which, of course, prohibits literacy exams.

There are many, many ways voting-age American citizens are either maliciously or unintentionally disenfranchised--restrictive government-issued ID requirements, purges based on voter caging or deceptive election practices to name a few--but this one takes the cake for its temerity and sheer nakedness. "What would be so bad about discrimination, properly understood," he writes.

The faulty basis for Goldberg's misguided idea is a recent poll that found that two-thirds of NYU students would trade their right to vote for a year's tuition. (Full disclosure: the Brennan Center for Justice is affiliated with NYU School of Law.) I'm reminded of the assertion of a former New York State Chief Judge who said that a grand jury could be persuaded "to indict a ham sandwich." The same is probably true of polls. We could find out which is more popular, ham or ham and cheese sandwiches, but that doesn't mean we'd elect either president -- or that a given poll has a real-world application.

Goldberg's misguided proposal is based on an entirely faulty claim: "The problem is that we've been making voting easier for a long time now, and turnout has generally been declining." A recently released survey by Sacred Heart University, Rock the Vote and WWE's Smackdown Your Vote showed that election participation from 18 to 29-year olds increased over the past two elections. In 2004, 4.3 million more voters under 30-years-old cast ballots than in 2000, and in the off-year election, turnout increased by 1.9 million from 2002 to 2006. In fact, participation among the demographic has increased in the face of efforts to make voting more difficult.

Only forty-three years ago, at the waning end of the Jim Crow era, the 24th Amendment was adopted to eliminate poll taxes. Since then, with some substantial exceptions in the crazy-quilt of felony disenfranchisement laws, most efforts to deny the vote to adult American citizens took less overt form. However, by no means is voting universal today. Some states, Indiana for example, have strict identification laws crafted in such a way to prevent a substantial segment of American citizens from voting. As a result, African Americans, the poor and seniors are disproportionately denied access to vote.

Goldberg's proposition also discounts the notion of one person, one vote and betrays the idea of representative government- democracy means the people have the right to elect representatives that will offer policies to help them. However, I agree with Goldberg on one point--more voting-age American citizens should participate in elections. However, we differ by the means to accomplish the goal. We should dismantle obstacles to registration and voting, not erect new and Trojan-horse poll taxes.

Here's another poll question: Would you trade your iPod if Jonah Goldberg were to renounce tactics that intentionally or unintentionally disenfranchise legitimate voters? I certainly would.

Andrew Stengel is the National Election Advocacy Director for the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.