On the U.S. citizenship civics test

When I first took a look at the 100 questions on U.S. naturalization civics test, I immediately saw some potential traps. I hope not to fall into any of them tomorrow when I’m scheduled to take the test in Baltimore.  To pass the civics test component of the U.S. naturalization process, applicants have to get six answers correct. There are a hundred questions on the list, but only a maximum of ten are asked (if you get all of your first six correct, you’re done).

Some are gimmes, as they say in golf, such as Question 28: What is the name of the President of the United States now? Others might require a little extra work for those who aren’t political and/or legal junkies, like Question 7: How many amendments does the Constitution have?

For me, as someone who has worked as a legal reporter in the U.S. since 2002 (although I have no formal legal training), the potential traps arise in various questions about the Constitution. Perhaps most problematic are the open-ended questions. If asked “what does the Constitution do?” (Question 2) by someone in the street, my most likely answer would be: “where do I start?” That isn’t what U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services wants to hear, obviously. Instead, it’s the simple phrase “defines the government,” which kind of makes sense. I have memorized it, just in case.

Here are some other questions that threw me a little:

Question 35: What does the President’s Cabinet do?

My answer to this would be that the cabinet members run government departments. But what CIS wants to here is “advises the president,” which is correct but doesn’t convey all that cabinet members do.

Question 48: There are four amendments to the Constitution about who can vote. Describe one of them.

What I find puzzling here is that the obvious answers would be “women can vote” and “African-Americans can vote” but these are not among the official answers. Instead, there’s “any citizen can vote. (Women and men can vote.)” or “a male citizen of any race (can vote).” Both seem strangely phrased to me.

Question 49: What is one responsibility that is only for United States citizens?

The correct answers are serving on a jury and voting, but the use of the word “responsibility” is what baffles me here, mostly in relation to voting. As I understand it, people are under no obligation to vote. It is a right to vote (Question 50 deals with that), sure, but is it a responsibility?

Question 51: What are two rights of everyone living in the United States?

Now this is the one I found most confusing. Before looking at the answers, my response, without thinking, as “the right to due process.” But that isn’t among the list of answers, which — in full, is:

freedom of expression
freedom of speech
freedom of assembly
freedom to petition the government
freedom of worship
the right to bear arms

Where is due process? Where is the Fourth Amendment right to be free of “unreasonable searches and seizures?” Weird.

And, finally, Question 55: What are two ways that Americans can participate in their democracy?

What struck me here is that, in a post-Citizens United age in which, more than ever, political speech = money, none of the possible answers involve “donating to a candidate and/or political party,” which seems an odd omission. Especially when they include “write to a newspaper” among the possible answers. Like that’s going to help.

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