Mayor de Blasio casting his vote on primary day (photo: @BilldeBlasio)
Last week's Democratic gubernatorial primary saw shockingly low turnout among New York voters - less than 10% of the state's 5.8 million registered Democrats cast a ballot.
Except no one is shocked.
The latest sign of distress in our democracy didn't turn many heads because it was expected; another plot point on a downward sloping trend line, both here in New York and nationally. Our voter turnout crisis is very real and should be troubling to anyone who cares about democracy, responsible government, and good public policy.
A primary day tweet from the account of Mayor Bill de Blasio reads, "Do your civic duty, New York City-vote today," above a picture of the mayor at his polling place. Reminders like this from the mayor and many other civic leaders have no effect, of course, as people have virtually all made up their minds about voting before the day arrives - especially on a day like last Tuesday with state-level primary elections in a non-presidential year. Sadly, an increasing number of potential voters are opting not to perform their "duty."
But who cares? We do not question the legitimacy of our governments, even if they are elected by a smaller and smaller percentage of constituents. Non-voters are adults, people who understand at least the general concepts of democracy, voting, and government. To boot, when we talk about voter turnout, we typically use stats based on registered, not eligible voters (estimates are that in the U.S. a little over 70% of eligible voters are registered).
Those who decide not to participate, for whatever reasons, are ceding power to those who care, those who organize and fight for their interests. Non-voters give tacit approval of whatever outcomes result; providing their proxy to the voters who opt in.
I, for one, don't want an increasingly diminishing portion of the potential electorate to decide the outcomes of our elections and therefore, much of our public policy. But, I also don't want even more uninformed voters heading to the ballot box to simply fill in an oval next to the name they recognize most from TV ads or mailers.
I want a flourishing democracy.
There are all sorts of election-related reforms that can and probably should be enacted, of course, and if you're reading this article you might very well already be able to list them: same-day registration; open primaries; term limits; and greater campaign finance regulations, among others. But, there's another essential element: education.
We've become scared of politicizing the classroom. By and large, we don't teach current events - which we should be doing in every subject area, not just social studies, where it happens at times. For the most part, we aren't infusing real-world issues and experiences into coursework, even in college.
We aren't exposing our children to civic thinking from a young age.
Just like we should (but don't) immerse our students in the study of foreign language from a young age, we should immerse them in the study of public life. We should invite our students to think critically about the world around them, we should invite debate. We should provide opportunity for authentic experiences and community service learning and action civics. We should allow young people to help make public policy.
We need a generational shift. It won't happen overnight, but it can happen.
This shift will take a reimagining of our schools, of our classrooms and our curriculums. It will take a retraining of our teachers and our after-school program providers. But, like with just about everything we should scale up, we have enough people doing things the way I'm describing that we can get there in due time. Positive shifts in focus from teacher-centered to student-centered classrooms and the increased honus on critical thinking skills are part of the equation.
As New York State and municipalities therein adapt to the common core standards and revamp both curriculum and instruction toward meeting them, there is a perfect opportunity to make more changes. The best outcome won't even be increased voter participation, it will be that virtually everyone involved enjoys school more and gets more out of it because it is a place of relevant, real-world thinking and action.
Voters and non-voters alike have little faith in elected officials to be honest and effective, but are generally not thoughtful about solving this problem. Instead, people disengage - or stay disengaged or withdraw further. To change that and ensure a social norm of critical thinking about public life and policy, we must establish this m.o., making it a part of who we are and what we do: in the classroom, at the dinner table, everywhere.
Many of the adults who care about politics and government were the kids who cared about politics and government. These people are the exception. To make them - us - the rule, we must encourage engagement from a young age.
Even in today's school culture, when you ask young people about problems with the world around them and for ways to do things differently, the floodgates open.
Yet, we don't often ask those questions and therefore, when the gates to the polling place are flung wide, there is not a flood of voters, but a trickle.
by Ben Max, executive editor, Gotham Gazette