Over the next week, champions of democracy, the people who care about what is happening in our politics today will ask themselves, “Ok, I’m registered to vote. I have my ballot, now what?”
The predicament is not entirely your fault. Voter education is a huge problem in America. The absence of a politically literate and well-informed citizenry can be attributed to a combination of factors. The first is that public school curriculums have diminished their emphasis on teaching civics, U.S. history and courses in American government.
Anyone remember the Constitution test? Oh wait, you’d only remember that if you grew up in the state of Illinois. In fact, only eight states require students to take a state-mandated government test, and only 20 states test for constitutional and governmental knowledge in any way. The absence of assessments leaves one to wonder about how the inner-workings of democracy are taught in public schools, if at all.
Another institution that has failed Americans in this regard is the media. The corporate media structure, including liberal and conservative media outlets, is beholden to high ad revenues generated from sex scandals and sensationalized stories that are often politically inconsequential. Rather than holding politicians and local leaders accountable to the issues (education, police abuse, gun violence, housing, employment, infrastructure, healthcare, climate change, foreign wars, and so on) and to the mandates that they ran for election on, traditional media has abdicated its responsibility to inform the public about local and national legislation affecting these matters.
Added to this is the crisis of credibility and legitimacy that non-traditional media has raised. Social media’s fake news, political echo chambers, and generalized misplaced faith in political polls has eroded the public’s need to consult experts, activists, and researchers for accurate, fact-based information.
Politicians, too, have unsuccessfully formatted their messaging and voter outreach strategy for the digital age. Despite the greater accessibility of information and communications technology tools, candidates have not adapted quickly to the new landscape and have thus conceded a lot of digital public space to influencers and others who market directly to viewers.
The Democratic Party, in particular, has struggled to support new progressive candidates who promote their platforms on social media, using Snapchat and Instagram fluently. However, communication is not the only problem. Since Obama’s 2008 campaign, candidates and political parties failed to invigorate and excite the public with commitments to work towards a new political horizon.
But there is some good news. Even though efforts of public schooling, the fourth estate, and political leaders have been limited in helping voters understand and imbibe the stakes of each election, we still have the capacity to decode our ballots and make informed choices for ourselves through self-education.
Self-education is an old tradition in our communities. For example, when state services were denied to African Americans during Jim Crow, black women like Septima Clark pioneered Citizenship Schools and other educational programs to promote literacy among adults in the South. Similarly, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee organized Freedom Schools to increase voter registration and promote voter participation in 1964.
Traditional media has abdicated its responsibility to inform the public about local and national legislation
Though some of our challenges are different today, we can still learn from our predecessors’ strategies for managing them. We encourage you to take seriously this idea of self-education as a pathway to greater more full-filling civic participation.
So where can you start? Good question.
There are a couple of voter (self) education tools that demystify this year’s convoluted ballots. The Voter Guide developed by Vote Save America allows you to see profiles on congressmen in your area. The guide outlines each candidate’s platform, financial supporters, congressional record, and explains what their candidacy means as a whole for electoral politics.
And if you’re interested in following specific issues, check out Issue Voter which helps you keep track of issues that you care about, like gun control. After seeing news of this weekend’s shootings in public places – grocery stores and places of worship – you should feel obliged to write your representatives about the necessity of greater gun control and condemnation of hate groups and hate crimes. Voter Issue generates and sends a letter to your representatives on your behalf through its online tool. Hold your elected leaders accountable to the issues that you care about by tracking how they vote on local legislation.
You’ve taken an important step by choosing to be a voter. Now, challenge yourself to learn about the process of legislative change. Remember that this is how the mechanics of democracy were designed to operate, only you can determine if they will function faithfully or not to their ideal.