Approximately 65 percent of eligible Americans voted this month in what many considered the most consequential presidential election of our lifetime. This was the largest percentage this century.
Although an improvement over previous elections, this percentage falls far short of the ideal. Too few people decide the fate of too many. American leadership on the world stage, along with the effects of American policies on all species on Earth, make anything but large-scale participation by the American electorate a grave problem for our country and the planet.
Moreover, an uneducated electorate – that is, citizens not fully practiced in the investigative skills and critical thinking required before casting a vote – leads to elections decided largely on advertisements, manipulated feelings, misinformation and disinformation, and group allegiances, rather than careful research and fact-checking.
There are many problems with the kind of democracy practiced in the United States, not just low voter turnout. For one, our democracy is not particularly democratic. In my tiny state of Maine, with 1.3 million people, we have the same representation in the U.S. Senate as California with almost 40 million people. Then there’s the electoral college, which, in all but two states (Maine and Nebraska) awards all its electoral votes to one candidate, even if the voters cast ballots for that candidate by only 50.1 percent. To be clear, I’m not offering a path to solving all the problems with our democracy.
I am, however, offering a solution that will galvanize the democratic process for generations to come and ensure that a vastly greater number of citizens cast informed ballots in elections.
In high schools across America, students are taught American History, and some are provided with courses in Civics. In these classes, they learn about the formation of our Constitution by the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War we fought to achieve our democracy. We can hope that they learn about our complicated electoral college system and about the disenfranchisement of women, slaves, and non-property owners before universal suffrage for all adult citizens was achieved in the 20th century. They should, but probably don’t, learn that despite this universal suffrage, efforts to suppress votes continue to this day.
I imagine it is the rare class that will teach them how to register to vote; where to view ballot measures prior to voting and how to assess these measures; how to bring critical thinking and media literacy to political advertisements; how to carefully research and evaluate candidates’ policies and (if applicable) their voting records. It’s unlikely they will be taught about ranked-choice voting, which has been adopted by the state of Maine, as well as many cities, to create a more democratic process for selecting winners. And none will go to the polls on election day to cast their ballots. That’s because they are ineligible to vote until they are eighteen.
During presidential election years, some teachers do engage their students in discussions about the candidates and their policies, but usually, this essential aspect of citizenship receives short shrift. And during the years in between presidential elections, students probably don’t learn much about upcoming elections in school at all. Fewer than 50 percent of eligible voters typically cast ballots in midterm elections, and voter turnout is even smaller for local and state elections that stand to have a big impact on their own communities. It's no wonder schools don't pay much attention to them either.
But imagine if people could vote at sixteen, after having been steeped in Civics Education starting in 9th grade. Imagine if, at the beginning of their junior year of high school, students were immersed in learning everything they need to know to be prepared to vote thoughtfully in that year’s election. While some might argue that teenagers are not intellectually prepared for voting before age eighteen, or that they will simply vote in lockstep with their parents, these arguments fall flat. Eighteen is not a magical age when humans become immune to manipulation, media siloing, groupthink, family and community pressure, and conspiracy theories, and suddenly become adept researchers and critical thinkers.
I can think of no better venue to prepare people for their primary role of citizenship than in the classroom. Teachers can guide students’ process of research, investigation, and evaluation of candidates’ policies, character, and histories. They can teach students to seek out information that comes from a range of sources and to fact check it. They can help their students hone their critical thinking skills, identify their deepest values, and pinpoint the issues of greatest concern to them. They can require them to watch or listen to that year’s debates and carefully evaluate candidates’ responses to questions. Teachers can then have their students review, assess, and make a personal decision on the candidates and on any ballot measures during that year’s election. And they can assign them the task of registering to vote.
Come election day, whether it’s a major election year or not, they can take students on a field trip to their polling place to cast their ballots. Then they can celebrate this rite of passage into full citizenship.
Imagine the stage this would set for students’ lifelong dedication to voting. Practiced in analysis of candidates and ballot measures and experienced as voters, these young citizens would likely participate in elections for the rest of their lives. As a country, we would no longer bemoan the lack of youth turnout during elections and instead would be inspired by young people’s diligence and sense of responsibility.
Just two small changes: the reduction of voting eligibility by two years and teaching about the Constitution, the electoral system, how to do effective research on the issues and candidates on the ballot, and how to register to vote before taking students to the polls on election day – would lead to a revitalized, fully participatory democracy. Our nation, and indeed all life on Earth, has everything to gain by taking these two steps.