Opinion

In the polling place, a need for civics education

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Opinion,Op-Eds

This Election Day just past was my first experience as an election officer in Fairfax County, Va., and it was eye-opening.

My experience gave me a whole new appreciation for those fellow citizens of both political parties who show up at zero dark 30 to ready the tables, signs, voting machines, registration books and ballots so that we can have fair elections. They stay for hours after the polls close to pack up equipment and tabulate the votes. Last Tuesday turned into an 18-hour day. The stipend from the county was less than minimum wage, so those who served with me clearly did so in the spirit of making our democracy work.

Despite long waits, people were generally understanding, respectful and neighborly. And it was gratifying to see people of all walks of life, racial and ethnic groups, young and old, line up to cast their votes. We forget that, in America, one citizen-one vote is the great equalizer. In these respects, my experience was quite uplifting.

But I also observed something that I found a bit disturbing. Many voters seem to know very little about the choices they are making -- so little that it evinces a lack of even basic civics knowledge. Those who are politically engaged might be shocked at how deep the ignorance goes.

Many voters attempted, in earnest, to select more than one candidate for president. One did not know what the "Rs" and the "Ds" next to a candidate's name meant and asked who the Democratic candidate was. One did not understand that a congressional district was a geographical area. Several did not know that they could vote for both a senator and a member of the House of Representatives. One fellow just filled in all the ovals on the ballot.

Many did not understand what the ballot initiatives and bond issues were, let alone their possible merits. Some voters were bewildered when the names on their actual ballot differed from a sample ballot they had been given by one of the political parties because it was intended for a different district.

Poll taxes and literacy tests to vote have long ago been rightly repudiated, but Republicans and Democrats should agree that we need to do a better job of civics education. It is laudable to register new voters, but we also need to teach these new voters about our system of government and the role of the leaders they are helping to elect. If all we do is register people, give them the T-shirt and expect them to vote a certain way, it barely rises above the level of exploitation.

Voting is indeed a fundamental right, but voters have an inherent responsibility to know what we are voting on and why. Political parties and politically active nonprofits also have a responsibility to help them learn, because voting should be about much more than just showing up.

Kristine Iverson, a former Senate staffer and assistant secretary of labor for Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs under George W. Bush, is an area freelance writer.

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