Blasing, a social studies instructor at LaCrosse High School, LaCrosse,
Kansas, who also serves as a part-time faculty member in the social science
department at Barton County Community College in Great Bend, Kansas, describes
a lesson plan to help students formulate their own political opinions
in an election campaign through a critical examination of political advertisements,
candidate debates, and political cartoons.
Voting Is Essential
by Rick Blasing
"For what avail the plough or sail, Or land, or life, if freedom
fail?" Ralph Waldo Emerson
The approaching election provides an opportunity to examine anew the
chronic proportions of nonvoting 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 aged 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 was 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 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 officials--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
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.
To help students formulate their own opinions about the issues in an election
campaign through a critical examination of
- political advertisements,
- candidate debates, and
- political cartoons.
- Examining Political Advertisements
Students, individually or in teams, will examine campaign literature
distributed by candidates. Students should identify:
- important issues addressed by candidates,
- important issues ignored by candidates, and
- 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:
- the theme of the ad,
- the specific issue--if any--being addressed,
- the factual content of the ad, and
- 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?
Examining Candidate Debates
Students will watch video segments of one of the televised debates
between the presidential candidates. 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
- What information about candidates may be provided by a debate
as opposed to: (1) political ads, (2) TV "sound bites,"
and (3) print journalism?
- Did the candidates in this debate tend more to "join issue"
or to avoid providing clear statements of their policy positions?
- Do debates reveal important qualities of leadership? If so, what?
Are there other qualities of leadership that debates may conceal?
- 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
- What is the intended message of this cartoon?
- What candidate/political party is being criticized?
- What issue(s) does the cartoon address?
- Is the cartoon fair-minded (which is not the same as neutral)?
- Is the cartoon successful in expressing its perspective?
- Do you agree or disagree with the point of view being expressed?
- 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.
- 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.
Source: Social Education, Volume 60, Number 6, Page 337,
October 1996. Copyright National Council for the Social Studies Oct. 1996.
Back to the Top