Should We Test Our Elected Officials?

by Bob Schwartz

IQ Curve
There is currently a right to have an abortion in America during the first trimester of pregnancy. This is one of the most divisive moral and legal controversies of our time. Some who support that right make clear that it is not necessarily a right they would exercise personally. Many who oppose the right would like to see it disappear entirely, whether through reconsideration by the Supreme Court or by constitutional amendment.

In the absence of constitutional reinterpretation or change, a number of states have passed laws to circumscribe that right, or at the very least to reduce its exercise. One of the most common laws, signed a few days ago in Wisconsin, requires pregnant women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound. This is aimed at emphasizing to these women that they are carrying a fetus—as if they had forgotten—in hopes of deterring them from going through with an abortion. The states just want to be sure these women are well and fully informed.

Great examples of conditioning a right are the sorts of literacy tests that were used in the Jim Crow South to keep black people from voting. Questions were often so difficult that even government officials would have trouble passing. From the Alabama literacy test of 1965 (68 questions):

19. Who passes laws dealing with piracy?
30. Of the original 13 states, the one with the largest representation in the first Congress was _____________.
39. If it were proposed to join Alabama and Mississippi to form one state, what groups would have to vote approval in order for this to be done?
41. The Constitution limits the size of the District of Columbia to _____________.
66. After the presidential electors have voted, to whom do they send the count of their votes?

The use of these sorts of literacy tests for voter suppression was challenged and ultimately outlawed.

Still, there may be the germ of a good idea here. A correlate of the right to vote is the right to hold public office. Sometimes, just sometimes, it seems that this right is being taken for granted by our elected officials. Perhaps there are some of the executives and legislators, at the state and national level, who might benefit from having their ability to hold office tested. Maybe they need to be tested on the arcane intricacies of how government works. Maybe they need to be better informed.

So the proposal is for all public officials to be tested before they are allowed to take office. No ultrasounds. Just the sort of knowledge assessment that prospective black voters had to undergo in 1965. Just the sort of test to see if these officials really understand what rights are and how, in America, we allow change to happen, and what to do lawfully if we don’t like the direction (we don’t terrorize people to make rights painful or impossible to exercise). We will see just how many of them can pass that test.

Answers to above questions:

19. Congress
30. Virginia
39. Congress and the legislatures of both states
41. 10 miles square
66. Vice President (President of the Senate)

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