Voter apathy is symptom, lack of civics education is problem (copy)

When I was a kid like you, I used to tell high school classes, people kept warning me to quit shooting my mouth off before I got into trouble. Now, I said, I’ve found the perfect job as an editorial writer. I get to shoot my mouth off every day, and they pay me for it. And the best part is, I don’t even have to be right.

But it’s better to be right than wrong, so it pains me to think I might have been wrong about something, especially if I have been repeatedly wrong.

Such may be the case on the issue of voting. I expect I’ve written at least two dozen editorials through the years bemoaning the apathy of American citizens and urging the powers that be to make voting easier. Early voting! Extended voting! Same-day registration! A polling booth on every corner!

Alas, voting has become easier and easier, but potential voters have not responded with a burst of civic virtue.

Since a landmark 1980 study by political scientists Steven Rosenstone and Raymond Wolfinger, arguing that many people didn’t vote because it was too difficult, states have made registration easier, and the federal government even jumped in with the so-called Motor Voter Act of 1993. Voting itself is easier, too, with more places and more methods and longer times to vote.

Let’s admit it. Voting is not a great burden, it really isn’t. What else should we do — put voting machines in McDonald’s and refuse to let people have their fries unless they pull a lever?

Yet most people still don’t bother.

In 2016, the Pew Research Center ranked the U.S. 31st out of 35 countries for voter turnout among the mostly democratic nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And in 2014, Indiana had the lowest turnout in the nation.

And just who are these recalcitrant voters we are trying so hard to entice to the polls?

A University of Pennsylvania survey in 2016 found only about 25 percent of Americans could name all three branches of government, and nearly a third could not name a single one. More than one in three could not name a single right guaranteed by the First Amendment. According to a 2014 Pew survey, only 38 percent of Americans could identify which party controls the House or the Senate.

Would the electoral process really be improved and the republic better off by cajoling even more ignorant citizens into making choices for a government they don’t understand? People don’t stay home because voting is too difficult. They don’t vote because they are not engaged in civic life and, furthermore, have no interest in it.

David Harsanyi, a senior editor of The Federalist, has a radical solution — let’s make voting more difficult. “We should demand some effort” so people can “ponder long and hard the gravity of the mistake they’re about to make.” And to make sure we’re scrupulously fair about it, “we must do our best to make voting equally onerous for all races and creeds.”

I can understand the sentiment. People have a greater appreciation for the things they have to work for, when they can see a connection between effort and reward.

I would not go that far. Voting is a right, not a privilege, and if we accept roadblocks for one right then we are giving permission for all our rights to be treated cavalierly. But once we have achieved a certain level ease and order — surely we’re there — it’s time to back off and let the people who are interested participate and stop pestering those who aren’t.

Voter apathy is a symptom, not the problem, which is the utter failure of our education system to nurture the virtues of good citizenship and stress the dangers of its lack.

Civics was once the primary purpose of a public education in this country. It is needed, Thomas Jefferson argued, “to give every citizen the information he needs . . . to enable him to calculate for himself . . . to understand his duties to his neighbors and country . . . and, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed.”

Somewhere along the way, civics classes fell off the curricula. Today, faced with the real possibility that the republic might slip away, educators are trying to reintroduce the idea that students must learn how to be active participants in their own government. But the efforts so far have been woefully inadequate.

So here’s my radical idea (introduced in the Indiana Legislature but gaining no traction): Make students pass a social studies test to get a high school diploma. And if we want to be really serious about teaching responsible citizenship, perhaps we should even require them to take the same test immigrants must pass to become citizens.

That might make a few more people vote, and maybe they’d even know what they’re voting on.

“Civilization,” H.G. Wells said, “is a race between education and catastrophe.”

Right now, education is not winning the race.

At least that’s what I’d tell high school classes today, and hope I would be right, and that students would listen.

Leo Morris is a columnist for The Indiana Policy Review. Send comments to [email protected].