58 Years Since Voting Rights Act
Voting: The Enemy Is Us
The power to change the biggest issues that bedevil this country is in our hands. It’s called the vote. If those who are qualified to undertake that simple remedy actually took advantage of what has been given to them – given to us –we would not have a do-nothing Senate, a government unable to function.
The majority in this country wants sensible limits on the easy availability of guns, but those reforms they want never become law, because legislators can count on a huge number of potential votes never materializing.
Most Americans want to increase access to voting, even as red state after red state enacts limits on those rights. That’s because so many voters who could demand such access simply don’t vote.
A woman’s right to control her body? The Congress cannot guarantee that right, despite the fact that far more Americans want to protect it than those who want to prevent it. Why? Because that majority sentiment is not reflected in those who go to the polls.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, our most recent national election in 2020 had the highest voter turnout of every election since 2000, but that record turnout was just short of 67%. More than 30% of eligible voters could not be bothered to vote. That figure represents more nearly 170,000 voters who had an opportunity to make their views known, but chose to sit on their hands, instead.
Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans in the United States by about 13 million voters, but that obvious advantage is not reflected in Congress, those we elect to write our laws. If all eligible voters actually voted, the Senate would not be split evenly between the two parties as it is now, making any legislation very difficult to enact. Instead, that substantial Democratic advantage would result in close to half again as many Democratic Senators elected as Republicans, about a 60-40 split, enough to accomplish great things, even with the arcane filibuster rule the Senate now operates under, a rule which prevents any meaningful legislation from moving forward.
So why do too many of us not bother to vote, not bother to use this one real power – this remedy – each of us is guaranteed? Instead of trying to answer that question, an effort that only makes me crazy, I’d like to propose a long-term solution to the problem. If the United States – the IDEA that is the United States – is to survive another twenty years, my proposed plan will pay off big time, in terms of vastly increasing voter participation. And it’s so simple.
We have the constitutional power to replace every member of our House of Representatives – 100% of them – every two years, and a third of the Senate. Not only do too few Americans exercise this power, fewer and fewer even understand the power the Constitution confers on the people, much less its structure. Only a quarter of all Americans can name all three branches of government, according to an Annenberg Pubic Policy Center survey, which also found that only nine states provide a full year of Civics as a condition of graduation. Ten states have no Civics requirement at all.
A survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2022 found that fully one-third of middle school students have had no Civics education at all, concluding: “Results from exams administered in the spring of 2022 offer… a bleak look regarding the level of understanding of the nation’s history, government and democratic processes.”
Civics courses teach us the basic structure of our government – three branches, checks and balances, federalism, etc., but not the mechanics of voting. Those come only through doing, and doing again. That fact is the basis of my school curriculum proposal.
Starting in the first grade, there must be an annual election in which students must take part. The next year, the new first graders would be introduced to voting for the first time, while the second grade would participate in their second such election. The issues to be voted on are almost irrelevant. In the first grade, it might be something as simple as which way the desks should be arranged. But by the time those same first graders reached the 12th grade, they would be voting on substantive issues facing the entire electorate. It is the process of voting itself that is the object of this lesson plan, not the substance that is important. Each year, the issues would be suited to grade level, and the requirements for filling out registration and voting information would also be appropriate to grade level. By the 12th grade, just as high school seniors are ready to become fully adult and participating citizens, they will have had twelve years of experience as voters. The habit of voting will, by then, be well ingrained. They will not only be eligible to vote, but they’ll also know how to register and how to cast their ballots.
And, having been told from grade 1 that this is the payoff – their ability to choose the direction of the country – they’ll be eager to do it. Instead of voter suppression, the result will be permanent voter expansion.