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Don't let ignorant people vote

By LZ Granderson, CNN Contributor
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Readers comment, columnist fires back
  • LZ Granderson: Public debate is weakened by views founded on ignorance
  • He says we shouldn't entrust nation to people elected by those who don't really know system
  • Granderson says people who want to vote should pass a test such as the one for citizenship
  • He says politicians often cater to those who are least informed

Editor's note: LZ Granderson writes a weekly column for A senior writer and columnist for ESPN The Magazine and, he has contributed to ESPN's "Sports Center," "Outside the Lines" and "First Take." He is a 2011 and 2010 nominee and the 2009 winner of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation award for online journalism and a 2010 and 2008 honoree of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association for column writing.

Grand Rapids, Michigan (CNN) -- Should ignorant people be allowed to vote?

A provocative question for sure; however, I'm not bringing it up for shock value, but rather to give us all pause.

If I were to ask you to ingest an unknown medicine from someone who knew nothing about the medical field, you probably wouldn't do it. And I doubt many of us would feel comfortable as a shareholder in a company that asked people who knew nothing about business to hire its next CEO?

Yet we all know people who gleefully admit they know nothing about politics, don't have time to find out what the current issues are or even know how the government works, but go out and vote. Want to know why it seems Washington is run by a bunch of idiots? Blame this hiccup in our political system for starters. What's a solution? Weed out some of the ignorant by making people who want to vote first pass a test modeled on the one given to those who want to become citizens.

Test your American civics knowledge

In an effort to win over ignorant voters, political campaigns are no longer targeting the movable middle as much as the easily misled. Instead of intelligent debates about important topics such as health care reform and cash-strapped states, we have an exchange of easy to remember catchphrases such as "Obamacare" and "War on Unions" -- all in the race to pander to people who can't explain what Congress does.

Or have a firm grasp of how tax dollars are spent.

In a recent CNN poll, more than a third of the people questioned wanted to see cuts in military spending, which is a good debate to have. The problem is the poll also revealed most Americans think the military takes up 30 percent of the budget when in reality it's 19 percent. If we don't know how much money is being spent, how can we intelligently say it's too much? And what to make of the 20 percent of folks polled who believe public broadcasting represents 10 percent of the budget, when it's more like a 10th of 1 percent?

I'm not suggesting someone needs to be a Rhodes scholar to vote.

But voters should at least be able to name the three branches of government. Voters should understand what a "trade deficit" is and how laws are made.

Before getting all bent out of shape by my assertion that you or someone you love is ignorant, please know I am not referring to the dictionary's first definition of the word, which typically means an uneducated or unsophisticated person. I am operating with the second usage, defined as a lack of knowledge in a specific area.

No one is omniscient; we're all ignorant about something.

Too dumb to vote?
Quiz: Test your civics knowledge

I know close to nothing about the inner workings of my car, and so I come to my mechanic, ignorant -- but not stupid. As this relates to voting, if people don't know much about current government and politics, they too are ignorant, not necessarily stupid. The difference is that naively paying too much for repairs on a car is not nearly as damaging to foreign policy as a bunch of ignorant voters hitting the polls.

Am I advocating for some sort of elitism?

You betcha.

One of the more counterproductive byproducts of having our political system hijacked by campaigns obsessed with ignorant voters is that the word "elite" has been saddled with terrible PR. True, one boilerplate definition essentially means "rich snobs" but another -- and the one more central to my point -- means the best or most skilled in a group. We don't seem to have a problem understanding the importance of having elite athletes on our favorite sports team, but some of us have been trained to have a gag reflex at the very mention of the country's elite thinkers running the country.

The Founding Fathers were not a bunch of average Joes with gripes about England; they were elite thinkers and philosophers. James Madison attended what is now Princeton. John Hancock went to Harvard. Thomas Jefferson enrolled at the College of William and Mary when he was 16. Today it seems the more education a candidate has, the harder he or she has to work to distance him or herself from it.

So how do we weed out ignorant voters without harking back to the days of poll taxes and Jim Crow? I would start by making the U.S. Naturalization Test -- given to immigrants who want to become citizens -- part of the voter registration process.

If knowing the number of years a senator is elected to serve is required of anyone who wants to become a U.S. citizen, is it too much to expect that information to be common knowledge for those of us who already are? This has nothing to do with who a person is or how they may vote but everything to do with a person voting as an informed citizen, not a sound bite regurgitator. Having a grasp of current events would be ideal, but if we could at least raise the required investment to engage in the political system, perhaps the tone of the rhetoric surrounding it can be elevated as well.

We wouldn't issue a driver's license to someone unable to pass the written test, knowing the potential damage that person could do behind the wheel. Why do we look at voting differently?

While the Constitution lists the reasons why a citizen cannot be denied the right to vote, it does not explicitly say it is a federal right. This is why felon disenfranchisement and mental competency laws, as they pertain to voting, vary from state to state.

I'm not suggesting we kick people out of the political process, only that we require them to have an agreed upon understanding of what that process is. If people are too busy to read up on the government, the Department of Homeland Security is not going to escort them out of the country -- or take away away their citizenship. At any point in which ignorant voters are fed up with being on the outside looking in, they can go to the post office, pick up a brochure with all of the questions and answers in it, and study free of charge.

Sounds harsh?

It is.

But at this crucial juncture with at least two wars, a budding energy crisis, a growing trade deficit, etc., do we really have the luxury of hand-holding? There simply needs to be more required of us as responsible voters than being born 18 years ago. Perhaps if we weed out the ignorant voters, politicians will no longer feel the need to dumb down the conversation in hopes of getting their attention.

And then if we're really lucky, maybe the ignorant politicians will go away as well.

At least one can dream.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of LZ Granderson.

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