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How to deal with ignorant voters 

Many questions swirl around this mid-term election season, some more pressing than others. How many seats will the GOP gain in Congress? Will they make inroads on the Mecklenburg County Commission? Is Christine O'Donnell for real? And some people will be posing the question I've asked myself a few times over the years: Why does the vote of some ignoramus count as much as that of a well-informed person? Seriously.

It's one of those issues that everyone knows is a real problem, but no one will talk about publicly. To some folks, I guess, the fact that Cousin Doofus' vote counts as much as their own is just the way it is, and hey, whaddaya gonna do? Progressives are particularly hesitant to bring up the problem of idiot voters because we're hardwired to believe in expanding the right to vote as much as possible. I have a solution, or at least the start of one, which would protect everyone's right to vote, and, at the same time, reward those who take a serious interest in government. I'll get to that in a minute.

I started thinking about the issue of dumb voters when the daily paper began pushing for a change in the way judges are picked in North Carolina. The Observer called for doing away with voter elections of judges, and letting the governor appoint them from a list of names selected by a panel of experts. Why? Because voters don't really know anything about judicial candidates, and "aren't using ... wisdom in selecting judges."

I can't argue with that. I'm pretty well-informed, but I admit I rarely know who to vote for in judicial races, and although I'm not proud of it, I, too, have not been "using wisdom in selecting judges."

The problem with that view, though, is this: If "The voters are not using wisdom" is a legitimate reason to keep them from picking judges, the same reason could just as easily be used to keep millions of ignoramuses from voting for anything.

It's no secret that many, many Americans don't know squat about politics or history. The Pew Research Center estimates that on a typical election day, 60 percent of Americans can't name a single candidate in their own district, for any office. Over the years, a thousand-plus articles, studies and papers have been written, spelling out how deeply ignorant many American voters are. In a country in which 40 percent of the people can't even name the vice president, should those half-wits' votes really count as much as that of someone who spends time reviewing politicians' positions, backgrounds, sources of money, etc.? The answer, I feel, is obvious: No, not if we care about how we're governed.

Still, it would be unconscionable to take away anyone's right to vote, no matter how little he or she knows about the issues. A citizen is a citizen, whether he/she's a responsible one or not. But it is equally unjust — not to mention very bad for the country — for ignoramuses to have the same say as vigilant, committed citizens.

Here's my suggestion for a compromise: Devise some kind of exam for voters; a combination civics test and current events quiz that would determine how much your vote would count. Fail the test and you still get to vote, which will count as one vote, as always. Ace the test, and your vote counts as three, or maybe four votes. An average score will get you two votes. Details could be worked out on issues of gradations of votes, such as do you use fractions of votes, how is all this programmed into computers, etc. (As I said, it's a preliminary idea, not a formal proposal, but it's a good start.)

Such a system wouldn't be perfect, and measures would definitely need to be put in place to ensure it wasn't abused. But, to my mind, almost anything would be preferable to a system that deems informed citizens' input equal to that of those who, say, think space aliens have taken over the Pentagon. Because that, as unbelievable as it seems, is the system we have now.

A different version of this column ran in 2006, and is included in Deliver Us From Weasels, a collection of John Grooms' columns and features.

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