Or land, or life, if freedom fail?"
Ralph Waldo Emerson
The approaching election provides an opportunity to examine anew the chronic proportions of non-voting in the United States. Dismal voter turnout has characterized American elections for decades. The percentage of eligible voters has not topped 61 percent since the tumultuous presidential election of 1968. This problem is particularly acute within the younger electorate, especially among those age 18-20, who won the right to vote with the 26th Amendment in 1971. The U.S. Bureau of the Census indicates that only 38.5 percent of eligible voters age 18-20 cast their ballots in the 1992 election. Less than half of this age group were even registered to vote during that election.
Social studies teachers have a unique opportunity to influence potential young voters by helping students develop an awareness of what is at stake in any given election-local and state as well as national. Students need to know about the historical struggle to extend suffrage, involving sacrifice and prolonged efforts by various groups in turn to win the vote. They need to understand the relevance of voting to their lives, and particularly, the direct relationship between low voter turnout and poor government. They need to realize the consequences of voter apathy, including the possibility that national policy may increasingly be determined by an active, bloc-voting, and frequently single-issue voting, electorate.
By facilitating the spread of knowledge, teachers can help students to comprehend why the success of our democratic experiment depends on a system where authority is given to elected official-our "public servants"-with the consent of all of the governed. The most fundamental right of citizens, the right to vote, should be portrayed as an active, dynamic component in a thriving democracy.
Provoking a Perspective:
Helping Students to Create Their Own Political Opinions
Goal: To instill in students a sense of importance regarding their own participation in the political process, and to empower them with a feeling of political efficacy that overrides prevailing voter apathy.
Method: To help students formulate their own opinions about the issues in an election campaign through a critical examination of:
1. Examining Political Advertisements
Students, individually or in teams, will examine campaign literature distributed by candidates. Students should identify:
a.Important issues addressed by
b.Important issues ignored by
c.Issues mentioned but not qualitatively discussed by candidates.
This activity could be extended to a critique of political ads on television by assigning teams to cover the evening news (when most ads are run) on different networks over a period of time. In examining political ads, students should identify:
a.The theme of the ad.
b.The specific issue-if any-being
c.The factual content of the ad.
d.The emotional content of the ad.
TV ads accounted for an average 25 percent of campaign expenditures by candidates for Congress in the 1994 elections. What conclusions do students draw about the value of TV advertising to (1) the candidates, and (2) the electorate?
2. Examining Candidate Debates
Students will watch video segments of one of the televised debates between the presidential candidates. To prepare for this, have students read "How to get the most out of a debate" in the box on the previous page. It would be useful for students to view the entire debate on television before the classroom discussion. Students could then suggest particular themes or issues in the debate for a detailed critique.
Students might also consider the following questions:
a.What information about candidates may be provided by a debate as opposed to: (1) political ads, (2) TV "sound bites," and (3) print journalism?
b.Did the candidates in this debate tend more to "join issue "or to avoid providing clear statements of their policy positions? Give examples.
c.Do debates reveal important qualities of leadership? If so, what? Are there other qualities of leadership that debates may conceal?
3. Examining Political Cartoons
Students, working in teams, will examine a selection of political comics and/or satirical cartoons that have recently appeared in newspapers and magazines. Teams should consider each cartoon in terms of the following questions:
a.What is the intended message of this cartoon?
b.What candidate/political party is being criticized?
c.What issue(s) does the cartoon address?
d.Is the cartoon fair-minded (which is not the same as neutral)?
e.Is the cartoon successful in expressing its perspective?
f.Do you agree or disagree with the point of view being expressed?
g.What is the basis for your own opinion?
Team members may not agree about how to assess each cartoon. In fact, it might be interesting for teams to share their ideas about the most controversial cartoons with the entire class.
4. Further Activities
Teachers may want to conclude this activity with a class discussion that draws parallels in how issues and candidates are presented in campaign advertisements, candidate debates, and political cartoons.
Teachers could extend this activity by assigning teams to follow how one important issue in this campaign is treated by various media. Students could use a tracking form similar to the one suggested in "Voting Isn't Enough" on page 335 of this issue of Social Education.
Rick Blasing is a social studies instructor at LaCrosse High School, LaCrosse, Kansas. He also serves as a part-time faculty member in the social science department at Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kansas.