Friday, June 28, 2013

A test of my faith in humanity

Rebecca Onion at Slate shares with us today a shocking Louisiana voter-literacy test from 1964.

Let me qualify what I mean by "shocking": I already knew that Southern counties and parishes often used arbitrary and deliberately frustrating "literacy tests" to stymie black voter registration. I saw that movie where a black woman had to correctly guess the number of jellybeans in a jar to register. And I'm aware it continues even today with the high-sheen voter-ID laws and the Supreme Court's recent and unbelievably boneheaded decision to end federal oversight of state voter laws. I didn't think I'd be surprised by anything of this ilk.

But until now, I'd never seen one of the actual tests. I'll never unsee it.

See the whole three-page headache here
Anybody else's head hurt? After reading each question five or six times (which took way longer than the entire allotted time), I began doubting my ability to read (which is apparently the point). I'd have to raise my hand a few times:

• What does it means to "draw a line around" something? Is that different than circling it, as demanded in later questions?

• What relevance does my ability to squiggle a line around some weird diagram have to literacy? Or, for that matter, the right to vote?

• On question 11, can I cross out all the zeros? That would make it technically correct, but I understand I'm being held to a rigorous standard here.

• What the hell is a "curved horizontal line," question 28?

• I'm pretty sure question 30 isn't even an independent clause. 

• By question 16, it should be poignantly clear to even the least-educated person that this entire test is a farce. I wonder if anyone ever got that far, considering the 10-minute time limit and the zero room for error.

I have a master's degree in English, which is a bombastic way of saying I'm literate. And I'm as flummoxed by this test as by the notion that it somehow underlies my ability to select my governmental representatives. Fortunately, I never would have taken it, because it was aimed at those with less than a fifth-grade education (or who couldn't prove such, because apparently one can?).

Funny thing, though — my grandmother had only a fifth-grade education (and no photo ID), and she voted all her life. I guess you could pass this test after all!

Oh, wait, she was white. Ah.

This, friends, is why we had the 1965 Voting Rights Act in the first place. That's what it took to get Louisiana and every state like it to stop this madness. I'm convinced several parishes here would still be doing this today if they could. Some might try again now, albeit in more stealth ways (the above-mentioned ID laws are already in the works).

For this reason, I think that every registered citizen over 18 should have their vote legally and constitutionally protected. Yes, that includes felons and the incarcerated. This is a new stance for me; in the past, I've been OK with the idea that those stripped of their freedom through a fair conviction should also be barred from voting. But I wonder now if it's possible to deny anyone the vote without blowback to others. Is barring felons from the polls worth the ability of officials to purge non-felons with the same names from the rolls? Are we worried that criminals will waste/mock their votes when many lawful voters do exactly the same thing without the value judgments? Is there any new restriction — voter ID, fewer polling locations, registration crackdowns — that won't deter honest people from voting? At best, these rules prevent a microscopic number of bad votes; at worst, they're weapons for America's worst leaders to enforce corruption and prejudice. Just like in the good ol' days.

To this day, some still think voting rights should be tied to taxes and/or property ownership. Many also insist racism is over. That these thoughts (which overlap considerably) exist is all the proof we need that the good old days aren't all that old.

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