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I conversed with someone the other day who said that just like we study and take tests to obtain a driver's license, we should similarly study and pass tests to get a voters' license. She said that this would at least partially prevent unengaged and/or uninformed voters from influencing the election in an objectively undesired way.

What are some objective reasons why this won't work as intended, or why it is a bad idea?

By objective, I mean, please avoid answers such as "voting is a right", and so on. That is definitely a respectable response, but a very subjective one as well.

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    There are no purely objective reasons. They're all going to be subjective. That said, in terms of a democracy, it defies the very definition of democracy: everyone can have a voice. – user1530 Jul 7 '17 at 6:39
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  • One problem with this is - it disenfranchises citizens. Aside from the very good 'quis custodiet ipsos custodoes' response, disinterested voters are a reflection of public sentiment. And that sentiment should be reflected in public action, lest rising disinterest translate into something worse than a bad midterm election. – tj1000 Jul 7 '17 at 13:06
  • Reopen vote. The true answers to many interesting questions are negative answers. The value of such questions is in clarifying the error or problem or assumption, and as education for those new to the question. Closers here are like a children who despise younger children doing puzzles they once found engaging, which once puzzled them too. – agc Jul 20 '18 at 5:29
  • @agc I'm not an original closer, but after review I think the answer to this question is the same as the questions linked by SJuan, making this question a duplicate. – Jeff Lambert Jul 20 '18 at 14:27

11 Answers 11

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+100

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

One important reason to not implement a license system that it is much more vulnerable to manipulations. Whoever runs the tests gets the power to decide who can vote and who cannot. There is no objective measure of "voting fitness" - the test's difficulty can range from only very simple questions that most people should already know without looking them up (who is the current head of government? etc.) to something that you cannot pass without at least one month of preparation. Where do you draw the line, even in an "unbiased" test?

How do you make sure that the test designers are fair? As it is, many ruling parties in democratic countries try to use their power to exclude certain minorities from voting. They cannot directly forbid it because the right to vote is universal - but they are sometimes trying really hard to set up some barriers to make it very inconvenient to vote for groups they view as leaning towards their political opponents. Or take, for example, gerrymandering. In theory, it is great to make every vote count exactly the same, but in practice, you can see what it leads to. Giving out licenses would make things much easier for parties that try to shift elections in their favor.

By the way, did I write "unbiased"? Even that is an illusion. The test will be biased by design: It is specifically targeted to exclude uneducated voters. A lack of education correlates with a lack of income. Thus, the final vote will shift towards the opinion of the rich. Is that even desirable in the first place? Elections are democracy's way to give the people a way to "correct" their government if they disagree with it - the other way to do so used to be revolutions. There are many disillusioned voters right now already. If you completely take away their right to re-join the democratic decision making process, they won't be happy, that's for sure.

At the end of the day, the only "objectively desired" outcome of an election has to be to accurately reflect the opinion of the entire electorate. If the majority of the people are making "stupid" decisions, well, that sucks, but it is their right - not only because of ethics, because of necessity. They will continue to be existant even if you chose to ignore them. So you have to listen. Many of the world's politicians make the mistake to think otherwise.

If you want to have less uneducated voters, the most sustainable way is .. to educate them.

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    " If the majority of the people are making "stupid" decisions, well, that sucks, but it is their right". This. I wish I could upvote more then once, just for this. Everyone has the right to vote, and there is no "objectively undesired way" uneducated people can be influenced to vote. Its their damn right to vote however they want. – Polygnome Jul 7 '17 at 11:17
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    Right on the money. When disenfranchised citizens have no say, they can in extreme situations, resort to other means. The US avoids this by having midterm congressional elections, as a way for the people supporting the party out of power to make their voice heard. One country that didn't have this was Spain in the early 1930's. When a left leaning group took over, and those on the right felt powerless to affect their government, the result was the Spanish Civil War. – tj1000 Jul 7 '17 at 18:35
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    "Elections are democracy's way to give the people a way to "correct" their government if they disagree with it..." - this presumes people know the truth about what's wrong. The issue of late is that there are so many voters who think something's wrong when it actually isn't. – CramerTV Jul 20 '18 at 23:45
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    @CramerTV "The issue of late is that there are so many voters who think something's wrong when it actually isn't.".... Respectfully, I disagree. If a majority of persons in a democracy believe there is a problem, there is a problem. Even if the 'sane', or 'educated' or 'pick the word you choose' simply know they are wrong, it doesn't, and perhaps shouldn't, matter. – CGCampbell Jul 25 '18 at 13:17
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    So why schoolboys cannot vote? There already is a test for voting, it's age restriction. As if "age" automagically gives voter knowledge to do the choice. – dveim Feb 26 '19 at 18:06
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History shows us that once people are given power that lets them decide if someone can vote or not, they will abuse that power to target and exclude their opponents.

For example, in the United States, literacy tests have in the past been used to disenfranchise minority groups from voting, which prompted laws to make such tests illegal.

Because elections are locally administered in the United States, voter suppression varies among jurisdictions. At the founding of the country, most states limited the right to vote to property-owning white males.[10] Over time, the right to vote was formally granted to racial minorities, women, and youth.[11][12][13] During the later 19th and early 20th centuries, Southern states passed Jim Crow laws to suppress poor and racial minority voters – such laws included poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses.[14][15][16] Most of these voter suppression tactics were made illegal after the enactment of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 2013, discriminatory voter ID laws arose following the Supreme Court's decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which some argue amount to voter suppression among African-Americans.[17][18]

-- WikiPedia: Voter suppression

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  • I upvoted, but I think you need to explain why voter suppression, or classicism, is a bad thing. An of the people. by the people, for the people locution would drive this home. – K Dog Sep 8 '19 at 18:21
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What are some objective reasons why this won't work as intended, or why it is a bad idea?

Oh, it probably would work.

But the idea of a democracy is not to always find the best possible solution. Technocracies (governments led by experts) can often do that better.

The idea of a democracy is to come to results that most accurately represent the will of the largest part of the population. You sacrifice quality for responsibility; rather a not-so-good decision that a majority of the population can subscribe to, than a better decision that only a tiny elite understands and accepts.

You can question this assumption. You can argue that a technocracy, a meritocracy, or a benevolent dictatorship might yield better results. But on the long run, a democracy seems to be more resilient against (although not completely immune to) the corruption of power than any other system.

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A major premise of modern democracies, perhaps the major premise, is that national sovereignty stems from the will of the people, who assemble and design their government to perform certain otherwise difficult or impossible tasks and duties, and who delegate to their government certain powers by which to regularly accomplish those duties.

To license or permit voting would be to pretend as though the people were not sovereign, making a privilege of voting as if granted by the grace of a monarchical will high above its people. In a monarchy, a voting license would make perfect sense. Such licenses might all be revoked at any time, if the monarchical government found its people undeserving of the privilege, or bought and sold, as with NYC Taxi cabs and ticket scalpers.

But in a nation with democratic values licensed voting would be self contradictory, and a sign of some broken and disobedient perversion of its government. A democratic government can however safely regulate and better organize its elective processes, in such a way as to equal or better any appropriate features of monarchical voter licensing.

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  • Kind of a general stub of a more classical answer. Needs more details, and background, plus a few relevant historic URLs to emphasize its intentionally complete lack of novelty. – agc Jul 21 '18 at 0:47
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Voting licenses would make it more difficult for those less-engaged voters to vote because typically those unengaged, uninterested voters are the people who are less educated and less wealthy.

Democracy operating alongside Free Market Capitalism means that more educated and wealthy people are more engaged, while the outcome of an election doesn't affect poorer people, and if it does, they are likely more busy working than researching elections, or may not understand how different results would affect them.

So if it became more difficult for everyone to vote because they now have to go through a process, the currently more interested, wealthy voters would go through the process, while the unengaged, uneducated voters would not, and even less of those unengaged voters would vote than do now, skewing the voting dynamic even further.

In a Democracy, every Citizen has 1 vote. That's the definition of "fair" (everyone being equal). This isn't just subjective, it's because throughout history people have had significant power in numbers, so a small group of tyrannical rulers could be overcome by the rioting masses when they can no longer stand their mistreatment.

The majority of people have historically preferred to have a fair system with 1 vote per person, and they have fought for it.

But technologies have gradually improved, more and more allowing those ruling minority to have a stronger defense, and it's unclear what kind of political systems will be operating in the near future.

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1) Minor gerrymandering with questions. According to my academic experience economics is being studied by people more on right wing (especially in economics), while political science seems to attracts more left-wing leaning people. Which one should dominate on the exam paper? (not mentioning even higher ideological disparities between military academies and humanities)

Sure, people could learn for the exam, but with limited effort you could actually eliminate less educated and more lazy part of some electorate, which in your opinion is undesired.

2) Gerrymandering by dealing with threshold. For example, in great oversimplification: in the US poorly educated minorities vote Democrats, above that you have let's call it Bible Belt, then college educated Democrats, and on the whole top are over represented classical liberals (libertarians) who consider Republicans as lesser evil. Pending where you put the cut off line, you may slightly skew whole political composition.

3) People don't like being told that they are idiots. It would be even more humiliating when the test would actually show that in quite clear and hard to refute way.

4) Big part of democracy is not electing bright people, but providing social harmony - people frown at you when you say that masses are on your side and you need to throw country in bloody revolution, when if your support was genuine it would be much simpler just to run in next election. Apparently using check and balances (or deep state in soft version like technocratic civil servants) is a bit more palatable for general population.

[Personal opinion: I'm surprised that other answers were excessively general, with limited amount of pointing out where exactly one could skew such system a bit. Nevertheless, there is clear limit in making the test an overkill, as ones favourite electorate would have to be able to pass it without serious problems. Personally, I'd like for such system to be tested on small scale]

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There are a lot of great answers here, but I'd like to propose another group that would be unfairly targeted by the additional difficulty of studying and going to get their voter's license: The overworked.

Many individuals in the United States are working 60, 70, or 80 hour weeks to make ends meet, working multiple "part-time" jobs simultaneously to pay the bills. These people have precious little time to do anything other than work-- how do you expect them to make the time to study, go to a polling station, wait in line at the polling station, take a test, and then get to a polling station for the actual vote on top of that?

Putting additional obstacles in the way of voting will inherently impact the working class more heavily than classes with more leisure time. We saw similar voter suppression in Georgia during the midterm elections, when thousands of voter ids were declared invalid and canceled in the months leading up to the election. While there was time for some people to re-register, many simply did not have the time to, and so were unable to vote.

Indeed, it's part of the reason that many are arguing to make election days national holidays-- if you have to work during the day and take care of small children at home, it becomes increasingly difficult to execute your right to vote. Declaring a national holiday can increase voter turnout and make people much, much more likely to get out and vote. By getting out and voting, they become more likely to become engaged and better research the candidates. It's somewhat cyclical.

Consider a scenario where you have two people who have never before ridden a bicycle. One is not allowed to try to ride the bicycle until they've read all of the relevant literature on how to ride a bike. Only once they've answered a series of quiz questions may they even attempt to ride a bike. The other is allowed to ride a bike and fall over, and to continue trying to ride the bike until they're comfortable and get it right. Who do you think is more likely to stick with riding a bike? Do you think that a person who answered all of the quiz questions correctly will ride the bike well on their first few tries? Why do we think that voting would be any different?

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Democracies aren't the "best" form of government except in one major regard - they are less likely to have violent revolutions. Voting makes people feel that they are both responsible for the current government and that they have a way of fixing any problems that exist. Democracies have problems when the democratic-ness is skewed, where some populations have disproportionate influence, or some populations have no influence. This leads to feelings of futility and frustration, which (combined with other factors - like a government that doesn't meet their economic needs and a large enough population) can lead to violent revolution. As a way of avoiding this, democracies should seek to equalize individual's voting power.

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  • Interesting. Although I believe we're going to see the idea that democracy avoids violent revolutions being (once again?) disputed by reality. Someone mentioned the Spanish Civil War above, but we could bring Venezuela as another example. Also we should keep in mind that Hitler and Mussolini were democratically elected with a recently expanded universal franchise. – Gunther Schadow Dec 14 '19 at 18:29
  • @GuntherSchadow The fact that some democracies experience violent revolutions says nothing about whether or not they're more or less likely than other forms of governments to experience violent revolution. – David Rice Dec 14 '19 at 20:38
  • I don't think you can say "says nothing" because your assertion, while popular and intuitive to be easily agreed to, came without any support or reference. Your assertion is measured how? Compared to what? At what other costs? What motivates me to participate in this politics stack exchange is that I can strive for objective standards of truth seeking. So I agree that my objections are not conclusive disproofs, but they do serve to make anyone (who isn't a pure ideologue) to at least try to address the doubt. – Gunther Schadow Dec 14 '19 at 23:01
  • @GuntherSchadow If I say that crime is down overall, pointing to a recent crime doesn't address my statement. Are you suggesting that democracies experience a higher rate of violent revolution than non-democracies? – David Rice Dec 15 '19 at 15:12
  • you have still not given any evidence for your claim. You came out claiming something without evidence. I simply reminded you with a number of examples that your claim is far from an open and shut case. You have not made your case at all. Start making it with evidence, data, and then we will see. – Gunther Schadow Dec 16 '19 at 3:12
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I think this idea of licensing voters is based on a false premise that voters are voting on issues, rather than choosing representatives, who will vote on issues and make decisions on their behalf.

The whole reason why voters choose representatives, rather than vote directly on issues in referendums, is that many voters aren't informed enough to make good decisions on issues. It's the job of their elected representatives to inform themselves about the issues and vote on behalf of the people they represent.

The problem with voting on issues in a representative democracy is that issues come and go. The issues, that are important at election time, might not be so important a year or two after the election. While other important issues might arise after the election is finished.

That's why voters need to know what their own interests are and choose representatives whose policy views align with their interests.

Voting on current issues at election time can be an incompetent way of voting. Because issues come and go. And on top of this, elected representatives aren't even legally obligated to fulfill their election promises on various issues.

Elected representatives can and often do change their mind and their voting on various issues, after they get elected. That's why it makes more sense to choose representatives based on your interests and the general policy views of the candidate, rather than based on the current issues at election time.

The rules of the road are objective. There is right and wrong that everybody can agree upon. But choosing someone as your representative is a subjective decision that only each person can decide for themselves.

That's why it doesn't make sense to license voters, the way drivers are licensed.

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  • I've voted in a different place, where ballots never have anything listed, except people's names. The question above didn't ask specifically about USA. – user29459 Dec 15 '19 at 1:39
  • I've checked out this ballot initiative issue in USA, and apparently, this isn't a binding referendum that has the power of law. It's more like advice for elected representatives to review the issue and enact corresponding law. Which makes this whole thing a Red Herring type issue in licensing voters, rather than something serious. According to Wikipedia, "In some cases, voters have passed initiatives that were subsequently repealed or drastically changed by the legislature." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – user29459 Dec 15 '19 at 1:50
  • While it varies from state to state, ballot initiatives (in the states where they are common) are usually legally binding, unless found by the courts to be invalid or unconstitutional, on in the rare cases where they were simply written in a way that calls on the legislature to take action. Like all laws, they can be overruled by other laws (for example, in the case you quoted, the Arizona legislature passed another law reinstating the penalties that had been removed by the voters, but if they hadn’t the change would have remained) unless the initiative amends the state Constitution – divibisan Dec 15 '19 at 2:23
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Imagine a country like Myanmar, with a Rohingya miniority who speak the Rohingyan language and not necessarily the majority language, Burmese.

What language would the test be in?

Even an honest government making the test available in both languages might struggle to avoid cultural references that don't favour one side. A dishonest one has an obvious option: make the test available in the majority language and exclude the minority from elections.

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I think so far objective answers are lacking, as all of them seem to assume this notion of "voting is a right" and presume that the electorate should include the largest number of people. What is the basis for that assumption?

I will expand on some of my comments on an attempt of a systematic answer, and I should note that while I am not sure what the scope of the question was, I do focus on the USA. I am not a U.S. American myself, but I have a stake there in the USA and I believe the USA was the best example of a Republic the world has ever known. Even though it has dramatically changed in the last decade and continues to change at breakneck speed.

So, what is the basis for that assumption that the electorate should include the largest number of people in some form and that some test is categorically not a good idea?

Someone above said that even age is already a test. As soon as you have criteria for inclusion, you have a test. Why don't we let babies vote as soon as they can hold a pencil? As soon as they can read? Why don't we explain the implication of the elections to 10 year old children in a way they can understand as then poll them for their opinion? It's their future after all! These arguments are being made, they have been made when the age was lowered to now 18 years and new proposals to lower to 16 years have been made in earnest. But 16 is just a number. 10 year old kids are now participating in climate protests, so why not ask them to vote? Why not 8 year olds? I heard often that TV content is targeted to people with cognitive abilities of 8 year old children (cannot find the source for it now), so why not 8 year olds? It's their future!

What is the test? There is a cognitive ability assumption on the age criteria. But there is also an independence argument. If you allowed children of 4 years to vote, chances are that they would be almost 100% guided by their parents or random error, and that would not be much better with 8 years. The key factor is that the children are dependents. They lack the experience of self-responsibility. Now consider self-responsibility as a criteria, one that can be objectively measured while not being a "test" at all. A 21 year old college student supported by their parents is also dependent. And so is a 30 year old welfare recipient. And why would you not call a government employee or contractor a dependent?

These are serious questions.

The assumption of universal (and ever expanding) franchise is also not based in the formation of the USA, where the franchise was much more restricted. Even leaving out the nasty mess of slavery and the reconstruction era and beyond, the franchise had from the beginning been restricted to land owners, wasn't it? And who was a land owner? It wasn't hard to be a land owner if you were a settler in the early USA, as people would become land owners by homesteading, it was accessible to most who came, except those who came under a contract where they committed themselves to a certain amount of time of labor for subsistence only; after which time was up, they could go and homestead their own patch near the frontier. The principle of this was that it gave the franchise to the people who have a stake in the country beyond their immediate personal lives.

The restriction of voting to land owners has often been framed as Americas "oppressive" and "shameful" past. But it isn't honest to simply impute an oppressive motive in the formulation of the USA's system of voting and government as it originally was. A far more realistic assessment should at least very seriously consider the issue of dependence. This dependence might very well turn into a license to vote. You might have to show that you have been living independently of others, supporting yourself from your own economic activity, and not receiving your livelihood from government (regardless if a politician, a government employee, grantee, or contractor, or welfare recipient.)

The great Civil War was a major push to extend the franchise, by considering service in the military during the war (and the many that came after) a ground for the voting rights. Still that is a notion of voting right in exchange for some responsibility for the country. But it went on from there, quickly, to universal franchise, suffragettes and all. Note that the principal argument against the suffragette movement also has not been some ominous "oppression" motive, but the fact that most women were de-facto dependents of their husbands.

However, the notion of "license to vote" is probably usually seen as some kind of aptitude test. And the big problem is that this is very open to manipulation by technocrats. Such technocracy is always firmly in the hand of left statist politicians. You can even see this in the answer that brought up the term: "Technocracies (governments led by experts)", he says, "can often [govern] better." This is a prejudice that never dies, despite technocracies always failing. The idea of technocratic planning government arose in the USA in the Progressive Era, and most of their ideas failed or were taken to murderous extremes elsewhere (e.g., Hitler learning his share of race ideology from the U.S. Progressive Era leaders.) Eugenics, forced sterilization programs and other excesses like the Tuskegee Experiment are one thing, but the simple fact remains that planned economies always fail to fare better than free market economy.

So the issue with such aptitude tests is that they can be easily used to measure the voters agreement with big government ideologies and hence benefiting the politicians and the bureaucrat-military-industrial-academic complex that feeds off entirely from their government dealings. If you stand on the left, you would probably be worried about the tests to be used for the ever luring racial discrimination in all its ever elusive subtleties and dog whistles and such, but if you are on the right you should at least be equally concerned, as by now you need no imagination to see how tests might be deployed to weed out deplorable low life of flyover country to interfere in the grand plans for a better world that the coastal elites have made for all of us.

So, this, I would say is the biggest reason not to want aptitude tests.

But to go back to the earlier thoughts, we should be aware that we always make some test that measures eligibility to vote on some criteria. Age, criminal record of felonies, and not to forget citizenship. And all of these criteria are being disputed and adjusted, striving for ever more inclusion. However, this is at odds with the original designs of the voting and governing system, among some notable others. Especially the 17th amendment of 1917 which, some say, ended the US Republic by doing away with the control of the states over the federal government. Already you can hear lots of people chiseling away on the Electoral College, chasing after the primacy of the "popular vote", and at that rate it is only a matter of time until the Senate will be re-structured to strive to become more demographically representative. This changes America completely.

And all of this is not a new observation at all, as Alexis de Toqueville already warned about even before the Civil War era.

Tocqueville warned that modern democracy may be adept at inventing new forms of tyranny because radical equality could lead to the materialism of an expanding bourgeoisie and to the selfishness of individualism. "In such conditions, we might become so enamored with 'a relaxed love of present enjoyments' that we lose interest in the future of our descendants...and meekly allow ourselves to be led in ignorance by a despotic force all the more powerful because it does not resemble one", wrote The New Yorker's James Wood. Tocqueville worried that if despotism were to take root in a modern democracy, it would be a much more dangerous version than the oppression under the Roman emperors or tyrants of the past who could only exert a pernicious influence on a small group of people at a time. [4]

The issue comes back to that of responsibility and independence, and having a stake in the future of the country, not just one's personal present well-being. Those who are not dependents but are responsible for dependents (wife, children, elderly parents) and those who own property, are much more prone to consider future value over instant gratification. That this is a matter of actual shouldering of responsibility rather than some "wisdom of age" is clear very quickly when you consider retirees as a voting block which politicians frequently have to pander to with promises to not dismantle retirement schemes and not lower pensions to protect the fund for the future generations. Wisdom does not come with age, but with economical independence, and ends with dependence, whenever it sets in, even after youth and even before the old age, primarily as a beneficiary of any government programs.

This principle of responsibility as the primary measure of eligibility to vote has been disregarded in the chase for the "popular vote" and is likely to haunt America for some time to come.

It has been argued that democracy with a large electoral base leads to more stable, peaceful people(s) and fewer revolutions. This idea, however, is hardly proven by a longer historical horizon, as Hitler and Mussolini were democratically elected, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was democratically elected, and the Civil War in Spain in the 1930s also ended a period of democracy with large voter base. Rather the experience with these failures of democracy are a confirmation of de Toqueville's warnings, and also those of Friedrich A. Hayek in "The Road to Serfdom".

Very briefly my answer can be summarized:

  1. Aptitude tests are political filters and the left usually rejects them as racist but the conservatives/libertarians have even more reason to reject them as empowering tyranny.
  2. There is always some test and there are movements to abandon all limitations on the electorate, these movements, however, do not want to consider the importance of self-reliance and responsibility vs. dependence, as they can manipulate dependent voters.
  3. The original Republic of the USA considered limited the franchise on a measure of responsibility, and only slowly it was expanded in exchange for service to the central government (Civil War effort) and later the idea of this "voting as a human right", and a subsequent revision of the original ideas of responsibility to suppose a negative motive of oppression.
  4. It has been argued that democracy with a large electoral base leads to more stable, peaceful people(s) and fewer revolutions. This idea, however, is hardly proven by a longer historical horizon, as Hitler and Mussolini were democratically elected, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela was democratically elected, and the Civil War in Spain in the 1930s also ended a period of democracy with large voter base.
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