Science Fiction Project - Free Culture
Analog - All editorials - John Wood Campbell
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VOTER REGISTRATION

A few years back, a somewhat unusual situation showed up in a small French town; some of the citizens of the town petitioned, most earnestly, to have the majority of the legally registered citizens of the town removed from the voter rolls. As I got the story, the precipitating cause of the petition was that the newly elected mayor of the town was at the time, and had been for some years, carefully locked away in the local institution for the insane.
He had been legally elected by the majority of the citizens of the town, who knew him well - were close, personal acquaintances. Very close; they, too, were safely stashed away in the same institution.
The institution was the provincial asylum - call it the State Institution. Since the inhabitants were citizens of the province, and of the village, were over twenty-one, and not convicted criminals, the French law at the time did not bar them from legal registration in the voting rolls. Since the village was quite small, and the institution quite large, the insane outnumbered the sane on the rolls. Democratic majority rule, therefore, allowed the most popular nut in the laughing academy to become mayor of the town. You know - "One man, one vote," and "all men are equal."
So a minority of the legally registered citizens were petitioning that the majority of the legally registered voters be deprived of their franchise.
Now, if you want to say: "All men should be equal!" as a statement of a personal, philosophical belief, that is perfectly proper and befitting. If that is what you truly feel and believe, then it is a real fact that you hold that all men should be equal.
But, if you say, "All men are equal," you are either ignorant, stupid, or suffering from delusions. There is no known respect - none whatever - in which all men are equal. Every measurable characteristic of living organisms - the human organism included - shows a distribution curve of values along any test-axis ever developed, when applied to a population of biological entities. Actually, the Law of Nature involved seems to be a lot broader than that - "identical" parts produced by precision machines also show a distribution curve. At the micro-level, we find a distribution curve of stability among radioactive atoms. If there weren't, like the fabled "Wonderful One-Hoss Shay," a quantity of radium would lie inert and totally unreactive until suddenly all the atoms simultaneously discharged an alpha particle and transmuted to radon.
To express an ideal, as "I wish I had a million dollars," is sane enough; to say "I have a million dollars!" and start acting on that proposition means either that you have very considerable wealth, or very severe delusions.
The French instance demonstrates in somewhat extreme form that the requirements of being twenty-one years old, a citizen of the area, not criminal, and generally recognized as "human" - whatever that term may mean! - do not establish adequate criteria for allowing and individual to vote.
There are - and long have been - a lot of invalid criteria for refusing an individual the right to vote. Things like religion, sex, skin color, even unpopular political belief. In at least one instance, the fact that a man insisted he had a right to wear a beard.
But the fact that invalid criteria have been used is by no means reason to hold that no criteria are proper.

The no-literacy-requirement situation currently on the books is approaching the level on unrealistic thinking involved in the French situation, where no-sanity-requirement ruled. The fact that the literacy requirement was, indeed used as a trick to impose a clearly improper skin-color criterion has nothing whatever to do with the matter. In a culture as complex and as highly technical as ours, an individual who has not learned to read and write is as incompetent to cast a rational vote as a man who's a citizen by reason of being locked up in local spin-bin.
Now note this carefully: The reason for his inability to read and write has nothing whatever to do with the matter; it's of no importance whether his inability results from innate mental failure - exaggerated stupidity - or from total lack of opportunity (he grew up on a desert island where there were no books whatever) or because he belongs to some peculiar religious sect which holds that reading and writing are the source of all wickedness. The operative factor is that a man who can not read and write is inherently cut off from a major information channel in the society - and in a society as complex as this, even all available channels are, in fact, not entirely adequate.
A piece of steel alloy, a high-carbon steel, which has been heated and quenched, but not tempered, can not be used as a spring. There's nothing wrong with the alloy; it's a first-class melt. But until it has been properly tempered, it simply can not function as a spring. There's nothing against the piece of metal - it simply hasn't had the tempering experience it must have to be used in that way.
It can, however, make an excellent file; it just isn't suitable for a particular application.
If the man hasn't learned to read and write by reason of being an imbecile, or very low-grade moron - that's a separate, but equally valid criterion for rejection from the voter rolls. The fact that he's "one man" does not mean that he can cast a rational "one vote."
The essential intent of the no-literacy-requirement bill was to prevent that reasonable criterion being used to impose an unreasonable requirement - that the would-be voter have the "right" skin color. And that method of achieving a worthwhile end is strictly on a par with the Prohibitionists' technique for curing alcoholics; prohibit all alcoholic drinks, because some people misuse them.
I have a suggestion that will be almost equally cordially detested by both sides in the dispute - because it's absolutely honest and absolutely unbiased.
We'll have a literacy test worked this way: An electronic computer is programmed with, say, five thousand questions on basic government, citizenship, and economic problems, each of which is a multiple-choice question. On present time-sharing program systems, one computer, with fairly cheap wire tie-in extensions, could handle the business for a whole state. Most states already have accounting computers that could be programmed for the operation.
A would-be voter comes into a booth not unlike a voting booth, sits down, and is faced with one of the computer outlets. When he's sealed the booth, the computer presents him with ten - or twenty or fifty - questions, selected by a random-number mechanism, from the bank of five thousand - or one hundred thousand for that matter - questions which he reads and answers by pushing what he considers the appropriate buttons. The computer mechanism scores him, and if his score is above passing - say seventy-five percent - the computer itself automatically issues him a voting card somewhat like a modern credit card. This card is then used in the voting machines when election-time comes.
If he loses the card, he can't vote till he gets a replacement - and to get a replacement, he returns to the local computer-outlet and goes through the testing procedure again.
Since the computer is not equipped with any sensors for anything but the questions-and-answers, it can't have any bias on race, religion, sex, or number of college degrees. Crackpots with six graduate degrees and remarkable delusions on problems of practical government flunk the test just as often as the local village half-wit.
The bank of questions is, of course, prepared by men who may have quite violent prejudices on race, religion or sex - but they'll be facing a most horribly frustrating fact; the questions any individual testee gets are going to be selected by a random-number mechanism which isn't under their control. Make the questions so tough only a highly skilled lawyer could answer them correctly to "keep all them damn niggers off" and they'll suddenly discover that they are being handed those questions to answer - and can't vote! In fact, that the electorate has suddenly been reduced to a number representing approximately one half the membership of the local Bar Association.
Try making the questions so simple that even the illiterate "po' white trash" from the backwoods can pass - and they've just thrown out the literacy requirement themselves.
Such a situation will, obviously, infuriate all prejudiced individuals most woefully. The white bigots who want all Negroes off the rolls can't get that; the equally bigoted racists who want all Negroes on because they are Negroes won't get what they want. The computer can't be rigged to select by sex, or religion either - without doing so very openly and publicly.
The other requirement is, of course, that the complete list of questions in the computer bank must he published by the State Board of Elections.
Obviously, anyone who wants to vote, then, need only take the time and effort to study the question he's going to be asked - the State itself is providing him with a cram course. Because, equally obviously, the man who has the desire to study and learn, and can do so, is precisely the type of citizen every state needs on its voter rolls.
And that, of course, will infuriate all demagogic politicians. That is not the type of citizen they want on the rolls!
There will, inevitably, be screams that it denies the vote to those who have been deprived of educational opportunities - who are not acculturated to the local cultural norms.
It does. It does indeed. It's intended to.
Voting is restricted to citizens of the local culture. That's why there's a residency requirement; you don't get to vote as a member of the group until you've become a member of the group - and why should you? If the local cultural group is a literate society - then become literate, one way or another, or don't expect to vote. You're not competent until you do. In New York City, where there are many thousands of Puerto Ricans who speak little or no English, the literacy test - in English - was heavily attacked because it deprived the Puerto Ricans of the vote.
Why shouldn't it? If the individual can't read, speak, or understand the language of the community, is he competent to make judgments of the community's problems? Perhaps he is indeed a wise, and highly intelligent individual - but in this case he's ignorant, and the ignorant have no business voting until they have repaired their ignorance. And be it noted that any wise and intelligent individual can. and will, learn his community's language rapidly.
It makes no difference whatever why an individual can't read or write; only the fact of that incompetence has bearing on his unsuitability as a voter. And anyone who has normal intelligence, and a genuine desire to be a member of his community, can learn to read and write in a matter of a few weeks. Sure, his reading and writing may be somewhat less than perfect - but Mexico succeeded, just a few years back, in bringing about a huge increase in literacy on the very simple basis of "Each one teach one," and by distributing comic books widely and cheaply.
In a nation as saturated with comic books for primers, and with individuals who can read and write, there is no validity whatever in saying, "He never had a chance to learn to read and write." Who needs a professionally trained, duly licensed, and state-paid Certified Teacher to learn to read? Did you, personally, learn to read first in school? Or at home, from parents or older siblings? I learned at four, from "Robin Hood and His Merry Men," Howard Pyle edition. I recall my sister learned her first reading from simple observation of traffic signs, and gas-station signs.
In these United States, there is no one who has no opportunity to learn to read and write.
However, since my daughter is teaching Remedial Reading in a major city school system, I have data that there are those for whom "educational opportunity" is properly defined as "activity of the school board - preferably oak or hickory."
The failure of many individuals to learn to read does not truly mean a lack of educational opportunities; it does indicate a lack of educational interest. It is perfectly true that a low-level economy, in a back-country town, definitely does deprive would-be students of educational opportunities with respect to such things as studying microbiology, spectrum analysis, chemical engineering, or computer programming. Those studies absolutely demand the availability of, and access to. costly specialized equipment, and skilled, specialized instructors.
Anyone who says learning to read requires such professional instructors and specialized equipment better take a look at what Mexican communities did for themselves. And meanwhile, stop preaching their great doctrine, based primarily on abysmal ignorance.
However, as I say, the notion of having the absolutely unbiased services of an electronic computer determine whether any given individual is competent to vote would be extremely unpopular with practically all groups.
I have long felt that the main reason people put Truth on such a high pedestal is to avoid the danger of accidentally running into it.

August 1966

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