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Citizenship education must go beyond the "hows and whys" of voting to explore leadership, conflicts over power, and the issues at stake in elections. Instructional activities to promote enduring democratic behaviors through broad voter education are presented. G. Dale Greenawald is an educational consultant who has published extensively in the field of social studies education, and recently served on the faculty of the University of Northern Colorado.

Voting Isn't Enough
by 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.

Goals:
Students will be able to:

  • compare and contrast their perceptions of politicians and leaders;
  • analyze the consequences of negative public perceptions of politicians; and
  • develop solutions to the problems caused by negative attitudes toward politics.

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