Opinion | Vivek Ramaswamy Has a Gimmick That Republicans Are Sure to Love

With a single, standardized ballot — cast in private without the assistance of a friend or relative or party representative — voters had to read to participate. That was the point. As one contemporaneous observer, George Gunton, an economist and social reformer, declared, “so obvious is the evil of ignorant voting that more stringent naturalization laws are being demanded, because too many of our foreign-born citizens vote ignorantly. It is to remedy this that the Australian ballot system has been adopted in so many states.” Its purpose, he continued, was “to eliminate the ignorant, illiterate voters.”

We similarly take voter registration for granted — of course we should confirm our intention to vote with municipal authorities ahead of time. But that, too, was introduced to limit and restrict the electorate. “Beginning in the 1830s,” writes Keyssar, “the idea of registration became more popular, particularly among Whigs, who believed that ineligible transients and foreigners were casting their votes for the Democratic Party.” Sixty years later, Southern Democrats used highly discretionary registration laws to remove as many Republican-voting Blacks from the electorate as possible.

“The key disfranchising features of the Southern registration laws were the amount of discretion granted to the registrars, the specificity of the information required of the registrant, the times and places set for registration, and the requirement that a voter bring his registration certificate to the polling place,” explained the political scientist J. Morgan Kousser in “The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910.” “Registration laws were most efficiently used — as in South Carolina, Louisiana and North Carolina — to cut the electorate immediately before a referendum on constitutional disfranchisement.”

We also can’t forget the actual literacy tests, introduced at the turn of the 20th century, that were designed to keep as many immigrants, Black Americans and laboring people from the polls as possible. The point was to limit, as much as possible, the political power of groups that might challenge the interests of those in power, from industrial barons in the North to large landowners in the South.

Ramaswamy says that the goal of his proposal is to encourage civic pride and inculcate a deeper attachment to the country among the youngest American adults. But there are ways to do both without creating new obstacles to voting. There’s also no evidence or indication that a mandatory civics test would achieve the goal in question. When you consider, as well, the extent to which there are older adults — even elderly adults — who could use a little civic pride themselves, it appears that Ramaswamy’s proposal has less to do with fostering national cohesion and more to do with the Republican Party’s unenviable dilemma with young people.

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