(June 5, 2014) How to weed out those unqualified to vote? Canada already has a system — the citizenship test.
“You owe your fellow citizens your counsel,” Andrew Coyne wrote last month, in arguing that voting should be mandatory, like jury duty or paying taxes.
The best way to get people to vote, countered Stewart Prest, a PhD candidate in political science, is with carrots instead of sticks. Lure people to the polls with tax credits, he argued in a rebuttal oped.
Neither carrots nor sticks make sense, believes David Moscrop, another PhD candidate in political science in another rebuttal oped. “While you may lead a voter to the booth, you can’t make him think.” Moscrop’s view: “some people shouldn’t bother voting.” Others, like Ontario TV host Steve Paikin, want people to show up at the polls even if only to exercise their right to decline their ballot.
Of these varied and informed sentiments, all intended to further a well functioning democracy, my views align most closely with Moscrop’s, particularly when he says “any increase in turnout that fails to generate better votes — votes that more accurately represent a good choice for the voter — is probably counter-productive.” But I prefer a corollary to his view, i.e., any decrease in votes that generates better votes is probably productive. Some people shouldn’t be able to cast their vote, even if they do bother to show up after being shamed or coerced.
Someone who thinks he lives in the Province of Toronto or who thinks Barack Obama is Canada’s president has no business in a voting booth. His vote does more than cancel out the vote of a knowledgeable voter, it dumbs down the entire electoral process. The more that we promote an ill-informed and ignorant electorate, the more that political campaigns will pander to a low common denominator among voters, the more that political campaigns will rely on personality and demagoguery rather than substance.
The politically ignorant cannot be identified by race, creed or colour, or even educational achievement. As CBC reported last year, some students at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland couldn’t locate the Atlantic Ocean on a map (Newfoundland, for those among you who shouldn’t be voting, is a large island in the Atlantic). Students also can’t identify Europe, North America, or Africa, and confuse the Arctic with the Antarctic. James Boxall, a professor at Dalhousie University who quizzes his first year students every year, reports that 70% can’t locate Afghanistan, a country in which our soldiers have recently fought and died.
Basic ignorance about politics isn’t limited to identifying political boundaries. The Dominion Institute has found that large numbers of Canadians can’t identify the type of political system we have, or other basics of the workings of government. By implication, this subset can have only the murkiest notion of the consequences of their vote. We need more votes cast by those interested in our country and its governance and fewer by those who show up at the voting booth bewildered.
How to weed out those unqualified to vote? Canada already has a system of sorts. It’s called the citizenship test. Immigrants who fail it don’t get to vote because they don’t get to call themselves Canadians. We should expect no less of our native born, who have not only had a dozen years or more of formal education in our schools but who might also be expected to have picked up some factoids — like the location of Canada’s Arctic — along the way.
Not that the citizenship test would be all that taxing. Sample questions to prepare immigrants ask, for example, if Confederation refers to United States Confederate soldiers coming to Canada, if golfing in Florida is Canada’s national winter sport, and if citizens are obliged to tell their Member of Parliament how they voted if asked.
I propose that would-be voters be challenged by a citizenship-test skill-testing question in the privacy of the voting booth. If they get it wrong, I’d be ok with giving them a second chance, with a second skill-testing question. With electronic voting already in place in some Canadian jurisdictions, and ultimately expected everywhere in Canada via both Internet and smartphone, posing these questions would be easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy. As bonuses, skill-testing questions would deter some from showing up at the voting booth for the wrong reasons and encourage others to bone up on Canada to become at least as knowledgeable as recent immigrants.
The need to up our game in how we elect our leaders, a concern that now seems abstract, could soon become essential to protect our democracy precisely because of electronic voting — Elections Canada plans its first pilot projects next year. Once people are able to vote effortlessly, and political campaigns become skilled at exploiting e-voting’s potential, campaigns will increasingly attempt to go viral, whether on the basis of some election-eve scandal, a populist issue that suddenly explodes or something “really cool” that a candidate does that is entirely divorced from his qualification to govern. Election-eve scandals aren’t new, of course, but the ability to mount last minute viral campaigns that appeal to the impulse voter would be.
We already allow serial murderers, bank robbers, con artists, terrorists and others serving time in penitentiaries the vote. Let’s not continue to cheapen the vote by giving it away wholesale under the conceit that the judgment of the thoughtless is as valuable in selecting those who will guide our country as is that of the thoughtful. Rights entail responsibilities. The right to vote should entail the responsibility to exercise it meaningfully.