by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & A & lt;/span & re you smarter than a 5th grader? That's the punchline of the latest hit game show. Contestants try to win a million bucks by answering questions lifted out of elementary-school textbooks. Viewers tune in to watch as grown men and women inevitably fail to recall what they were supposed to know at age 10.

It's the same concept behind "Jaywalking" on The Tonight Show, when Jay Leno finds people who have no idea but still offer up hilariously wrong answers when he asks them simple questions about geography and history. The basic premise of both is that it's really funny to see how dumb our fellow citizens can be.

That might be good TV, but it's bad democracy. Either way, the joke's on us.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & n a 2004 policy paper for the libertarian Cato Institute entitled "When Ignorance Isn't Bliss," George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin finds that Americans don't know much about politics, either. Relying on polling and other research, he concludes that "the American electorate fails to meet even minimal criteria for adequate voter knowledge," adding that "close to one-third of Americans can be categorized as 'know-nothings' almost completely ignorant of relevant political information."

Such a state of ignorance in a democracy is something that has troubled thinkers from Plato to John Stuart Mill to Thomas Jefferson, who built in a safeguard as he and the other Founding Fathers simply didn't extend the right to vote to every American. (That's why the right to own a gun is in the Constitution, but the right to vote is not. State constitutions do, however, guarantee the right to vote.)

Or were the Founders on to something? I hate the way they restricted voting -- by race, gender and class -- but perhaps they felt the vote was a privilege, not a right. And privileges -- like being able to drive or perform surgery -- require some qualifications.

Since the early years of the republic, we have come to the consensus that voting is a basic human right. Still, we have continued to restrict voting. You had to be able to read to vote until 1965, and you had to be 21 years old to vote up until 1971. Even today, many states have made it illegal for convicted felons to vote after they have paid their debt to society. And we know that many Americans don't seem to hold the right too dearly -- as a percentage, fewer Americans vote than do citizens of most other democracies.

In a perverse way, perhaps we take it less seriously because voting is a right, not a privilege.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & hey say this upcoming presidential election will be our first billion-dollar campaign. Candidates are filling their war chests to fund clever media blitzes designed to trick all those Jaywalkers and 5th-grade dropouts into buying what they're selling. According to law professor Somin, that's one-third of the potential voting pool up for grabs. Are you a candidate who doesn't believe in global warming? No problem -- one-third of Americans don't have enough knowledge to care.

If voters are not wise enough to throw bums out when they deserve it, elites will run the country for their own benefit. And lately, all it has taken to win over all those know-nothings is some kind of emotional, "red meat" issue (gay marriage, guns) or a well-timed spike in the terror alert level.

You could say that if people sell out their self-interest so easily, shame on them, but they're dragging the rest of us down with them.

So what if we started discriminating against people who are tuned out? What if we went back to the idea that voting was a privilege, not a right, and we required voters to pass a basic civics aptitude test? (Immigrants who want to become citizens must pass such a test.) All those millions of know-nothings would have to get serious if they wanted to be a part of this democracy. And all those candidates thinking they just needed a big stinking piece of red meat and lots of cash would have to deal with reality instead.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & O & lt;/span & n momentous questions of what it means to be an American, that great American sage Ted Nugent can offer guidance. When asked what he thought about fellow musicians telling young people to "rock the vote," the Nuge (as I like to call him) said, "that's not good enough." Sure, he said people should be encouraged to vote, but first they should learn what they're voting on. Voting without knowing, to the Nuge, "that's like saying, 'Well, there's a child drowning in the river. Just do something. Here, I'll throw him a cinder block.'"

That Nuge -- he really has a way of nailing an issue.

Despite what I've written above, I'm against restricting the right to vote -- and I believe it is a basic human right. This column is just another way of saying we should treasure our freedom and our right to vote, not take them for granted.

Yes, great Americans died so people could cast a vote without having a bloody clue. But with the most pivotal, expensive and media-saturated presidential race of our times bearing down on us, now's the time for all of us to back up all of our freedoms with some personal responsibility. It's our duty to prepare ourselves for the fact that political campaigns are very clever sales jobs, and that candidates aren't always who they appear. Wake up, people!

Picking leaders is our most important job as citizens, and if we don't take it seriously, we'll just keep throwing cinder blocks to a nation drowning in political dysfunction.

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