Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Just be glad there isn't a Later Bedtime Party

Today was of course the Day of the Solemn Yearly Festival of Choosing our Leaders and Deciding Important Questions Concerning Our Governance. Not too many people paid attention to the Festival this year, as the Leaders to be chosen were on the order of County Freeholder and the like (what is a "freeholder" anyway?). In the province in which I reside, one of the I.Q.C.O.G. to be decided was the following:
Constitutional Amendment Concerning the Right to Vote for Certain Persons

Shall the amendment of Article II, Section I, paragraph 6 of the Constitution, agreed to by the Legislature, revising the current constitutional language concerning denial of the right to vote by deleting the phrase "idiot or insane person" and providing instead that a "person who has been adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction to lack the capacity to understand the act of voting" shall not enjoy the right of suffrage, be adopted?
In case that wasn't clear enough, here's the accompanying Interpretive Statement on the ballot (which of course I have here because they mail out copies of the ballot beforehand, so you don't have to stand there reading it):
Approval of this amendment concerning the denial of the right to vote would delete the phrase "idiot or insane person" and replace that phrase with "person who has been adjudicated by a court of competent jurisdiction to lack the capacity to understand the act of voting" in describing those persons who shall be denied the right to vote.
I imagine it would. That was in fact the impression I had gotten from the text of the amendment itself. But there's more:
The phrase "idiot or insane person" is outdated, vague, offensive to many, and may be subject to misinterpretation. This constitutional amendment acknowledges that individuals with cognitive or emotional disabilities may otherwise be capable of making decisions in the voting booth and that their right of self-determination should be respected and protected in this regard. The amendment only denies the right of suffrage to those individuals determined by a court, on a case-by-case basis, to lack the capacity to understand the act of voting.
That second sentence is has a slight whiff of political correctness about it; but the first one is well said, and I was happy to vote for this amendment with great confidence that it will pass. Interestingly, though, on consulting the dictionary afterwards I found that the word is more outdated than it is vague (or even offensive, in its original meaning). For definition 1 is quite specific; an idiot is
a mentally deficient person with an intelligence quotient of less than 25; person mentally equal or inferior to a child two years old: idiot is the lowest classification of mental deficiency, below imbecile and moron.
An imbecile, apparently, has IQ 25-50, equivalent to a child of 3-8; while a moron has IQ 50-75, equivalent to a child of 8-12. So if you wanted to insult a moron, you'd call him an imbecile, and to really insult him (or the imbecile), you'd call him an idiot. I'm not sure what to be impressed with more: that they thought they could get so precise about it, that these words, which we all use interchangeably, are actually tied to these classifications, or, more specifically, that those who wrote the Constitution of my province thought that while it was perfectly fine to allow mental 3-year-olds the right to vote, we really have to draw the line at the idea of idiots voting.

All kidding aside, I do think that some people should indeed be denied the right to vote on these grounds (lest, for example, they be exploited by well-meaning relatives); but clearly case-by-case is the way to go.

Incidentally, take a look at the etymologies of these words. Moron comes from the Greek word (moros) for "foolish," while imbecile comes from the Latin word for "weak." Fair enough; but check out idiot:
OFr. idiot, an idiot; L. idiota, an ignorant, common person; Gr. idiotes, one without professional knowledge, an ignorant, common person, from idiousthai, to make one's own, from idios one's own, peculiar.
So "idiots" are those who have spurned (or cannot but spurn), well, "higher education" in favor of their own idiosyncratic ideas, that is, a set of ideas "of their own mixture." Boy, if that made you ineligible to vote, presidential campaigns would be very different from the way they are now. (Not that the results would necessarily be better, mind you!)

UPDATE: Right after writing this, it occurred to me: if you only needed to have a mental age of 3 in order to be considered qualified to vote, then why is the voting age 18? Maybe we should judge that on a case-by-case basis too.

Another reason why this mental age determination method isn't so great: I was a fairly precocious child; but in the 1968 election, when my mental age was much greater than 3, my reason for supporting Humphrey for the nomination over his rivals (after the assassination of RFK; my parents were Eugene McCarthy people) was basically that I thought it was cool that his initials were H.H.H. On the other hand, very many supposedly competent people voted for his opponent in the fall; and we know how that turned out.


Daniel said...

How was the status of "idiot or insane person" determined before, if not on a case-by-case basis? Standardized test scores?

I suspect this might be a cosmetic change.

Duck said...

Mmm, good question. It probably is a cosmetic change. But given the dictionary definition, it must have been some sort of quantified thing. My guess is it doesn't come up that often, and that the reason for the change is that someone actually looked at the text and balked at the anachronism rather than that someone was prevented from voting and made a stink. But who knows.