Do we need to set higher standards? | Ott Observations

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While dozens of states are raising identification standards for citizens to vote, I’ve been reading another book about our Founding Fathers. 

I think most of us can agree that having a say about who represents us in our government is one of the most important rights of citizenship. Yet in the beginning, the founders limited voting to only white males owning property.

They wanted to limit having a say only to those with “skin in the game,” versus having mob majority rule they could see was derailing the French Revolution. While the world has moved well beyond a utopian agrarian society where everyone has their piece of ground to farm, I’ve begun thinking about new standards for voting rights based on earning citizenship. 

Currently all you have to do is have your 18th birthday.

My thoughts are that you should earn your right to vote by first meeting some simple obligations of citizenship. First, you must be educated, having the equivalent of a high school education. Voters should demonstrate a capability to inform themselves about current issues. Second, you have to pass the same test we give to immigrants seeking citizenship. You should understand how your government works.  Third, after high school, you provide 4-6 months of mandatory military service. 

These three requirements would be the modern equivalent of the founders’ concept of “skin in the game.”

There are other democratic countries that require military service of all citizens – providing at least basic training so the entire citizenry can be quickly mobilized to meet a dire military threat. More importantly, this would provide lessons about citizen responsibility. Eighteen-year-olds will perhaps for the first time learn to subjugate their personal independence to a larger cohesive group and common good.

I am not suggesting we throw this “army” into battle, but it could be readily available to assist public service needs such as disaster relief and emergency food and shelter. Such experiences could provide a much broader perspective on life in the U.S. vs. the sheltered personal life experience we get contained in our local community.

I would not have liked this idea when I was 18, nor would the children I helped raise. But I can now see some good personal benefits I could have found useful. Four to six months can give you time to think about potential career choices and additional education. You might even realize your calling is the military. 

Away from mom for the first time, you would get a strong dose of personal discipline – what you eat, daily exercise, regular sleeping hours and detachment from social media. You would have a real basis for self esteem, making a contribution. You might even be more interested in using your right to vote if you had to do something to earn it.

Besides setting a higher bar for voting rights, I’m thinking it is even more important to raise the bar to run for office. By any objective standard, we have many candidates who are unqualified to govern.  Once again, besides being a citizen, the only thing you have to do to run for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate, or even U.S. President, is to have enough birthdays.  

Here are some qualifications I think we should add:

First, you should have to pass the same test we give to immigrants seeking citizenship. You are responsible for understanding how our government was designed and is supposed to work.

Second, you have to read 12 biographies about past leaders in the most difficult times of our country, and pass a test demonstrating your understanding of what you’ve read. The biographies I propose would be Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton, Lincoln, Grant, T. Roosevelt, F. Roosevelt, Truman, Reagan and Obama.  A council of historians from our leading universities could select the biographies and design the test.  

Third, you need to pass a test of knowledge about the top 10 U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the basis for those decisions. This could be designed by the American Bar Association.

We have the benefit of hindsight from over 200 years of brilliant and idiotic decisions. There is absolutely no reason we have to re-learn any of these past lessons. If people want to run for federal office and can’t meet these standards, they are not intelligent enough to be our leaders.  And if they meet these standards, get elected, then act contrary to obvious lessons in our history, they clearly are maliciously using their intellect for bad intent or personal interest.  

None of us should want either type representing us.

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