Voting Isn't Enough

G. Dale Greenawald

"Stop that teenager before he votes!" (Rosenberg). This rather unusual plea caught my attention several years ago, since I'm more accustomed to hearing appeals for programs designed to increase voting by young adults. This contrarian perspective argues that Americans should re-examine the use of voting patterns as the ultimate criteria of civic participation. Despite the popular perception of voting as the pinnacle of civic behavior, the author suggests that voting without careful analysis of issues and candidates contributes little, if anything, to democracy. The transparent futility of uninformed voting may, in fact, enhance a sense of alienation and estrangement from the political process.
Voting is a minimalist expression of citizenship, and voter education should promote behaviors beyond merely punching a card and dropping it in a ballot box. Many students can correctly identify residency requirements, use a voting machine, and even explain the importance of voting, but still fail to vote or engage in other basic civic behaviors. Knowledge of the electoral process is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for voting. The desire to vote results in superficial candidate selection when the voter lacks: (1) a commitment to being informed and a dedication to the common welfare, (2) adequate knowledge of candidates and pressing public policy issues, and (3) higher level thinking and problem-solving skills.

A comprehensive voter education program for high school students must attend to three interrelated elements: affects, knowledge and skills. Some affective elements actually pose barriers to developing effective citizenship. These include: negative perceptions of politics, power and conflict; the personal sense of lacking efficacy; and an atrophied sense of civic responsibility. Helping students to acquire sufficient knowledge of the "hot" public policy issues underlying electoral debate poses another challenge in the age of over-information. Finally, students need to hone their critical thinking skills to evaluate candidates and analyze public policy issues.

The high visibility surrounding elections provides excellent instructional opportunities to promote behaviors congruent with Barber's and Parker's ideals of strong democracy (Barber, Parker). The following instructional activities are designed to promote enduring democratic behaviors through broad voter education. They center on the examination of: (1) politicians vs leaders, (2) politics, power and conflict, and (3) identifying and prioritizing the issues in an election campaign. They can also serve as an entry point for use of the Active Citizenship Today (ACT) service learning curriculum developed by the Close Up Foundation together with the Constitutional Rights Foundation (1995).

Politicians vs. Leaders
The abysmally low level of voting by youthful citizens provides a clue that, for many, non-voting must be perceived as rational behavior (Gans, McPhilimy). National polls consistently indicate that the public holds negative perceptions of politicians and politics. If voters continue to believe that it makes little difference who wins an election, since most politicians are incompetent or unethical, is it little wonder that voter participation has plunged? The pernicious impact of this perception may not only promote non-voting, but also inhibit citizens with political aspirations from tossing their hats in the ring.

Students will be able to:

Write the word "politicians" on the blackboard or overhead and ask students to list all the words they associate with that term. As students suggest words, ask them to explain why this describes politicians.
Do some words "trigger" others? Draw connections between these words to create a semantic web. Then repeat the activity using the term "leaders."

After students have identified all of the terms they associate with "politicians" and "leaders," compare the two "schematic maps." How are they similar? Different? Ask students to cluster the terms from both lists into positive and negative attributes. In most instances, the terms linked to politicians will be negative, while those associated with leaders will be positive.

Use the following questions to help students explore both causes and consequences of the divergent perceptions of "politicians" and "leaders."

a.What is your reaction to the different terms associated with politicians and leaders?
b.How accurate are these perceptions? How can you measure their accuracy?
c.How well do these perceptions reflect those of the wider society?
d.How might these perceptions influence the behavior of someone thinking about voting?
e.How might these perceptions
influence the behavior of someone thinking about running for office?
f.What causes negative perceptions of politicians and politics?
g.What might be some consequences of negative attitudes toward politics for a democracy?
h.Should anything be done to improve the public assessment of politicians?
i.What would you do to turn a "politician" into a "leader"?
If possible, invite a local political figure to class to offer a viewpoint on being a politician and to respond to students' ideas about politics. What do students want most to tell this politician? What does this politician want most to tell students as the coming generation of voters?

Politics, Conflict and Power
Even if students recognize the need for a more favorable attitude toward politics, they may harbor an aversion to the conflicts and the jockeying for power that characterize the political process in the United States. This lesson explores why conflict is inherent, and the quest for power an essential element, in politics.

Students will be able to:

1.Begin discussion of the importance of power in our political system by asking students to describe what power means to them. Record their thoughts on the sources and uses of power. These may be used as hypotheses to be tested, or as a benchmark to examine whether their attitudes change, during the lesson.
Ask students to monitor the news for several days. Their assignment is to locate "powerfuquot; people, and to bring in newspaper items, pictures, or videotapes segments that demonstrate their power. Have students work in small groups to develop a working definition of what constitutes "power" (the ability to influence individuals and/or events). As each group examines the material they have collected, have them note the source of each person's power, e.g., position, money, knowledge or ideas, skill, popularity or large following, physical strength, weapons, "connections" to powerful people, control of technology or information.
Create a class list of sources of power, and have students categorize them. Use Socratic questioning to help students recognize that power is often situational. For example, a pro basketball player has power on the court but not in a cancer research lab, a police officer has power while on duty but not while attending a stock car race. Ask students to think about what sources of power are most important in the realm of politics.

2.Preface this activity by asking students to identify one thing they would like to change about the world. Prepare a list of the desired changes to distribute as students enter class the next day. Select an item from the list, and ask students who this proposed change might affect. Would some people gain while others would lose? Identify groups that might favor the proposed change and groups that might oppose it. Repeat this process with several items.
Challenge students to find one item on the list that everyone in the world would support. They are likely to find that there are opposing forces for every issue. What do students conclude about the role of conflict in life? How do individuals and societies deal with conflict? Are there more and less productive ways?
If time permits, have students read all or part of Federalist 10, and discuss its relationship to power and conflict. Ask students to write a letter or e-mail to the author of Federalist 10 critiquing his ideas in light of the U.S. political system today.

3.Ask students to re-examine the list they made of desired changes, and consider what is required to put them into effect. Use Socratic questioning to help students recognize that efforts to change or to maintain the status quo both require power to succeed. What does this finding suggest about what students must do if they really wish to see the changes on their list occur?
Create small groups to "brainstorm" ways students might acquire power in order to promote change, e.g., learn about an issue, recruit others who favor change, identify and write to key policy makers, distribute information, volunteer with or contribute to an organization or a party working toward this change. Ask each group to select its two best ideas and describe them to the class. Review the sources of power list developed earlier in this lesson. Does it suggest additional ways to empower students to respond to an issue? Finally, ask students to develop criteria for rating the likely effectiveness of their ideas. Use these criteria to assign a rank order to methods by which they might affect the political process.
Identifying and Prioritizing the Issues in an Election
Once students recognize that it is only through power that they can hope to influence the political process, they must decide which issues before the electorate are most important to them. This activity is designed to help students identify and prioritize the salient issues in an election campaign.

Students will be able to:

1.Identifying the Issues
Draw a large profile of a head with the cranial area divided into ten to twenty boxes. Label the head Joe/ Josephine Voter, and ask students to fill the boxes with the issues in this election campaign. As students volunteer issues, ask them to explain the nature of the issue and why it is important. What are their sources of information about this issue? Do some issues overlap so that they may be considered the same?

2.Prioritizing the Issues
When all of the issues have been listed, ask each student to rank order them from most to least important. Then have students discuss their criteria for assigning importance to an issue (e.g., affects the most people, has the most costly/destructive consequences, is most urgent because its consequences will be felt first). What conclusions do students draw from learning that they have not all used the same criteria in ranking issues?
Ask students to review their own rank orders and make any changes they think necessary after listening to the class discussion. Then divide the class into smaller groups (three to six members) and ask them to construct a group rank order of the issues. Students will have to determine what method to use to arrive at the most representative group ranking. Have each group post its results for the entire class to see. Following discussion, have the entire class assign a rank order to the issues in this election.

3.Constructing a Poll
Students, whether or not they vote yet, represent a particular age subgroup in the population. Ask whether they think the issues in this campaign would be ranked similarly by other subgroups. Depending upon the information wanted, pollsters sample public opinion in terms of groups based on: age, sex, educational level, income, type of community (urban, suburban, rural), region, race, religion, political affiliation and other characteristics.
Ask students to construct a poll about the major issues in this election to be taken by members of other age groups in their community. A simple poll could ask its subjects to prioritize the issues as students have named them. Students can decide whether to make the poll more open-ended by providing space for respondents to name their own issues. A more complex poll would involve transforming the issues into questions in as unbiased a manner as possible and asking respondents to indicate their positions.
Students and members of the other age groups could then take the poll.

Questions to consider after polling include:

4.Developing a Tracking System
Ask the class why it might be important to know what candidates say about the issues in this campaign (1) at different times, (2) in different places, and (3) to different types of audiences. Is there anything else important to know about how a candidate addresses the issues in this campaign?
Now divide the class into teams and challenge them to develop a form that enables class members to track what a candidate says about the issues in this campaign. Have the teams share their forms and synthesize their ideas into one class form. (It will probably be similar to the one shown on this page.)
Have students use their forms individually to track what the major candidates say about one or more issues in this campaign. A class form using posterboard or shelf paper and prominently displayed in the classroom might also be kept. Students could then assess candidates in terms of such questions as:

Barber, Benjamin. Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.Constitutional Rights Foundation. "Service Learning in the Social Studies." Monograph published by the Constitutional Rights Foundation (Chicago, Ill., no date).Croddy, Marshall (ed.) Active Citizenship Today: Handbook for Middle School Teachers. Washington, DC and Los Angeles, CA: Close Up Foundation and Constitutional Rights Foundation, 1995.Gans, Curtis. "Socialization and Participation: A Research Agenda for the 21st Century." Citizenship for the 21st Century, edited by William T. Callahan, Jr. and Ronald Banaszak. Bloomington, IN: ERIC Clearinghouse for Social Studies/Social Science Education.McPhilmy, Glennys. "The Young Non-Voters." Daily Camera. (April 29, 1991): 4A.Parker, Walter. "Schools as Laboratories of Democracy." Educating the Democratic Mind, edited by Walter Parker. Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1996.Rosenberg, Elliot. "Stop That Teenager Before He Votes." The Wall Street Journal (September 29, 1988): 30.G.

Dale Greenawald is an educational consultant based in Colorado. He has published extensively in the field of social studies education, and recently served on the faculty of the University of Northern Colorado.