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Voting: A Right or a Privilege?

by on April 25, 2017

                                                            Voting: A Right or a Privilege?

                                                                    by Marco M. Pardi

“When people put their ballots in the boxes, they are, by that act, inoculated against the feeling that the government is not theirs. They then accept, in some measure, that its errors are their errors, its aberrations their aberrations, that any revolt will be against themselves. It’s a remarkably shrewd  and rather conservative arrangement when one thinks of it.” John Kenneth Galbraith. The Age of Uncertainty, 1977

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All comments welcome.  To those readers who have been hesitant to comment or ask questions, please be assured you may do so freely. In recent days several new people have signed on as followers, enabling them to comment freely, and it is hoped they will. All previous posts are open for comment by clicking on “uncategorized”. Reader participation keeps this site vibrant. MMP

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Before the reader groans, this is not another Trump rant. This is on a subject that has interested me since primary school days of learning about Greek “democracy”. Of course, only much later did I learn of the “primitive democracy” of Mesopotamia, India, and even the austere Sparta, long pre-dating Greek democracy.

It is important to say at the outset that I am well aware of what is clearly the Russian attempt to subvert confidence in the democratic process as demonstrated in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.  That attempt, obviously very well done, poses a grave threat to democratic societies everywhere.  And, in fairness, the U.S. has long engaged in similar tactics to discredit foreign politicians it does not want in power and to influence voters to select those it does want in power.  The traditional means included slanted articles in print media, suborning of journalists, financial support of cooperating editors, outright but covert ownership of print media and subversion of journalists. The same tactics applied to radio and television outlets.  The primary change in operation today is the realization of traditional media decline and the excellently crafted change of direction into on-line sources and engagement of radio and television talk shows.  

The basic issue today, as it has been since the American Founding Fathers, is voting. Who should be allowed to vote, and what criteria must they satisfy to obtain this right?  But on the other side of the coin is the question of how much are the voters entitled to know about the candidate being put before them.  

The history of quasi-democratic and democratic policies is obviously too long and complex for my post so I will confine myself to the last few decades of what has been called The American Experiment.

I’m not a fan of late night television, preferring to read instead.  But I have seen episodes of shows such as Jay Leno during which interviewers went onto the streets and asked current events and political, historical, and geographic knowledge questions of passersby.  At first it seemed staged; people simply could not be that ignorant. But by watching carefully, and matching the outcomes with the increasing numbers of polls taken at various times, I’ve come to accept them as valid events. Many people really are that ignorant. Further information could be found in analyses of voters and voting outcomes done over the past 30 – 40 years.  The data largely match the informal, done for entertainment value of the Leno type examples. 

I look back to the Reagan – Carter campaigns and feel I see the groundswell of our modern Style over Substance, Form over Function campaigns.  Reagan, a former actor and tv pitchman, assumed the mantle of Father Knows Best, layering over his vacuous and often simplistic agenda with the warm and reassuring comfort we associated with our (idealized) fathers and grandfathers.  No matter his rhetoric didn’t make sense, we felt better when he employed it.  G. W. Bush was appointed President largely on the semi-literate swagger and “guy you would like to have a beer with” image that outshone Al Gore’s polished and experienced image.

Throughout my government career personnel holding security clearances above a certain level and having access to certain programs had to submit annual exhaustive financial statements on themselves and their spouses (if they were still married by this point).  In some career fields they were also subject to periodic examination, up to and including polygraph.  The examinations were usually routine questions, but I remember one in which the examiner went quite beyond pilfered office supplies and into questions on the structure and functioning of government including term lengths for the Senator, House of Representatives, etc.  As I dove into my usual effort to score well on tests my Inner Voice spoke up saying, “Too many right answers can be as suspicious as too many wrong answers. Be average.”  As I now look back on those Leno interviews I feel I was, despite my best efforts, well above “average”.

Throughout the years there have been attempts at imposing some sort of screening test for voters. Of course, most were transparent attempts to exclude minorities and were eventually overturned.  But after the recent election there has been talk of developing a competency test for the Presidency.  And in the past few days a number of psychiatrists have declared Trump mentally ill.

Screening voters is simply impossible, even if a fair test could be devised.  But what about a Progressive Competency Test for candidates, from local office to the Presidency, getting progressively more complex through the higher offices?  And what about a complete and thorough publicaly disclosed financial disclosure, including complete tax statements and bank records, filed annually?  Would you not want to know if that choreographed candidate actually understands the job, or if that candidate stands to privately gain financially from the job?

Some would say these would deter the best qualified candidates. How so? Why? Some say the Primaries and the debates flesh out the candidates sufficiently enough.  In the context of a full-on 24/7 blitz of falsified “news”, radio and television talk shows, endless attack ads, and well planted rumors and innuendoes did the primary debates really shine truthfully through for you? Were they in-depth enough or did you have to bring information with you in order to understand and evaluate the points made by each candidate?  If so, where did you get this information?  I have long thought debates do not often change minds; they simply provide a venue for each side to cheer its team, not listening to the other side much less considering what the other side may have said.

I propose the development of two tests for candidates for any office which, by the rules of the Constitution, is in the line of succession should the Office of the Presidency be vacated through death, disability, or removal.  One test should be a Governmental Competency Test, by an independent body of political scientists who voluntarily surrender their right to vote on the candidates for whom the test is devised.  And, I propose the inclusion of an independent psychiatric assessment into the physical exam.  Were you satisfied when the current President’s friend and physician simply told us he was the healthiest candidate ever to run for the office? 

These tests should be administered immediately upon declaration of candidacy. The results of the physical, including psychiatric assessment, could remain private. This way an unqualified candidate could be advised, on pain of disclosure,  to withdraw at the start of the primaries.  This would draw no great general attention as candidates do it all the time.  

I propose a similar independent body of economists and accountants to oversee and adjudicate the complete and thorough financial disclosures of the candidates, again voluntarily surrendering their right to vote on the candidates they examine. These financial disclosures would also make public record of the finances going to and supporting the specific candidates and their run for office.        

Still, some will say these requirements are onerous and will impede good people running for office.  To them I say, Grow up.  A major portion of my life has been spent in contest with people who would not register a blip on their EKG as they trigger a bomb.  Any single person who reacts the wrong way puts his own life at risk. Any President who reacts the wrong way puts the planet at risk.  We must quit hoping for the best and start making the best happen.

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12 Comments
  1. Ray Z Rivers permalink

    Marco – it is most remarkable that almost half of the people of arguably the most advanced nation on earth had voted for someone like Mr. Trump. Still – shit happens. The challenges of pre-qualifying political candidates are many and perhaps include as many unwanted outcomes as that kind of process was intended to prevent.

    Iran has a qualification process, and Russia also, though the Kremlin often finds it more effective to use bullets to determine who is allowed to run in elections. One problem, as you identify is more with the voters making irrational, dare I say ignorant in some cases, choices. Another problem is the media and the incessant polling that informs but in doing so also guides the public – to vote or not – to vote for one or the other based on whether they think it will matter (protest votes).

    And of course elections are fashion shows and it is unfair that each candidate does not parade themselves fully naked – bare-assed so we can see what really makes them tick and what we’re getting for our vote.

  2. Thank you, Ray. I’m very glad you pointed out the qualification process in other countries, albeit Draconian in some cases. In some ways I think much of this nation still has fantasies of tri-corner hats and the simple life they associate with those times. As for your suggestion of a bare assed revue, I won’t even speculate on how the television ratings would go.

    A friend and I were discussing the low level of understanding among voters and he suggested it is the fault of education. I think he is correct to the extent we have allowed education to become rote training. But as you and I know from our efforts in education, there are many who simply cannot “get it”.

    Thanks for the comment, and the contribution. Marco

  3. Alex matheson permalink

    Marco I am still inclined to favour the test for the voter rather than the candidate. The test could be fairly simple well publicized along with the answers and people could bring their answers to the test. They questions would require an objective not subjective answer. And that the people had been forced to read and repeat the answers would be sufficient, no need to demonstrate memory of them. Taking the test would show some additional interest in the process. alex

    • Thank you, Alex. Perhaps we could combine the two in some form. Of course, given the current reticence to vote at all, this may reduce voter turn out even more. But a few questions taken from the Naturalization exam would go a long way. Thanks again, Marco

  4. Michael E. Stamm permalink

    I continue to think that the idea of a competency test for either voter or candidate would be dead on arrival. Given the nature of testing, which is inherently biased one way or another in any case, seeking something that would be both universally acceptable and effective is like seeking El Dorado…blindfolded, ear-muffed, at midnight in an empty cellar the size of Siberia which does not in fact contain El Dorado.

    The late Robert A. Heinlein–a man not without flaws, but whose considerable intelligence I continue to respect, for the most part–once proposed in his fiction that the voting franchise be extended only to those who had served in the military or in some other form of national service. That alternative might work; it would require a significant amount of dedication, as the vote should, but would not be limited to anyone who could meet the terms. And–if it were designed intelligently–it could not be reasonably objected to as discriminatory on the usual grounds of “race, creed, gender, or philosophical conviction.” Just a thought…

    • Thank you, Mike. I often think of Heinlein and the many books of his I read. During the Draft era the military was far more heterogenous; but since the inception of All Volunteer I would venture the sample would be greatly skewed in one direction.

      As you and the other readers certainly see, I’m trying to consider some way of preventing another vacuous carnival barker from ascending to the highest office.

  5. Gary permalink

    I have two words regarding your proposal: Abraham Lincoln.

    Arguably America’s greatest President would have been taken aside by the psychiatrist and warned that if he continued his candidacy there would be no choice but to inform the public of his lifelong battle with depression.

    • Excellent point, Gary. In fact, we had a well qualified vice-presidential candidate, Eagleton, drop from the ticket due to his past treatment for depression. And, Ulysses Grant was one of several drunks.

      That being said, I think we must also consider we are in a new era of worldwide consequences should a mind altering recurrence or a relapse occur.

      Notice, I’ve stayed away from testing the voters; that’s beyond reach. But the field narrows when it comes to the candidates.

  6. I’ve given this a lot of thought since reading this post; my gut reaction was that voting is a right, but further thought has me wondering if this is true. We grow up hearing the term “right to vote”, and so we come to accept it as such. I come to question whether it should be a right. It is a privilege to be allowed a voice in who and how our country is governed; one not shared in most locations throughout the world.

    In the beginning, only property owning males were allowed to vote. Time and struggle have expanded this to include most of the population. Certainly, one should be a citizen to be allowed a vote, but should this be the only qualification necessary. Currently, in Florida, it is more difficult to obtain a driver’s license than a voter registration card. We test people before they are allowed to drive, but there is no test of skill or knowledge when it comes to voting. I admit, there is probably no test fair enough as to not allow the accusation of cultural bias, but perhaps a basic civics exam might suffice.

    As for the candidates….where to begin. To become president, the Constitution requires only that they be 35 years of age, and natural born citizens of the United States. While this may have sufficed more than 200 years ago, it certainly isn’t good enough now. No one (except Trump) would question that POTUS is the most strenuous and difficult job in the world. I suggest that anyone declaring themselves as candidates for this job should be thoroughly tested for physical fitness, mental stability, and intelligence enough to allow understanding of what said job would throw at them. A lot more people “qualify” for this position than would ever be able to do it properly.

    Whether one believes voting to be a right or a privilege, it is certainly the obligation of every thinking citizen to exercise that vote to the best of their ability to influence what will come next.

    • Thank you, Rose. Indeed, the screening for several licenses like driving, gun carry, etc. are far more rigorous than for voting. The Naturalization screenings and exams are even more so. I’ve met many about to be, or recent citizens who know far more about American political institutions than the average native born.

      The demented carnival barker now in the White House got there proudly on the votes of “poorly educated White men”. He said last night he did not realize just how hard (as in complicated) the job really is. Then again, I think the majority of people have little to no idea how hard it is.

  7. Doug Harper permalink

    Marco, I reject any attempt to limit who votes, beyond some minimum age. We’ve been there, seen it, done it. It wasn’t that long ago that women weren’t seen fit to vote. I have no problem for instance allowing prisoners to vote. I would allow people with mental disabilities the right to vote.
    As of 2004 they could in Ireland, Italy, Sweden and Canada; Canada since 1993.

    In short I’m prepared to trust the voters at large, subject to what follows in the next paragraph. I reject the wailing and gnashing of teeth such as we’re hearing from the elites in the UK that Brexit voters would have the temerity to not vote as they’re told. And when they don’t slag them off with cheap epithets like racist. It’s why I’m fully supportive of referendums; the voters as a collective will by definition be smarter than a handful of well fed and housed politicians.

    We should really focus on getting more people out to vote by removing/reducing the obstacles to their participation, such as ease of finding a polling station; simpler ways of proving identity. Our voter turnout is appalling. Mandatory voting is a band-aid solution. Then we should be limiting the way well-funded interest groups try to manipulate public opinion. We should resist all attempts to gerrymander electoral districts to favour one side or another. We should ensure the voting process is fair and the results represent the will of the people as best we can. I’d end political debates; little more than stage-managed theatre.

    Yes, we should be concerned about foreign attempts to shape the outcomes of our elections; but that’s been going on a long time and the fault lies with us for not rooting it out. Stop blaming Putin, the Chinese or whomever the bad boys of the day are.

    Regarding who should be allowed to run for office; I support full disclosure of all financial/business ties. I don’t support disclosure of health-related issues, including mental competence because who is to say what is normal. Would we deny Stephen Hawking the right to run? If you are allowed to vote you’re allowed to run, subject to the aforementioned disclosure.

    • Thank you for the well reasoned analysis and response, Doug. I admit to some trepidation regarding opening the vote to everyone. But, I guess I would fall back on the old Intelligence adage: When you want to hide the needle, add more hay. In this case the needle is the uneducated and or the narrow and vehemently ideological vote.

      I am in full agreement with your suggestions for improving the process, especially eliminating the contrived debates. Election Day should be a national holiday, with allotted time off for critical services. And, full and complete financial disclosure from candidates is a must. However, I cannot get past the mental competence issue, given what we now have in the highest office. We are wasting far too much valuable time and resources deciphering and parsing the self-contradictory, Byzantine blizzard coming from the White House; even our allies are unsure of who we are from day to day.

      Again, thank you for taking the time to analyze and comment. Marco

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