Vermont Votes for Kids: A project of the Vermont Secretary of State

Curriculum for Grdes 9-12, Student Handout for Lesson 20:
What Can One Person Do?

 

Your vote counts! The option to vote with absentee ballots has made it more possible than ever for more voters to join in the process of determining our collective political direction. But in a twist on an old adage, we could say "Ballots don't elect people; people elect people!" This means that the vital link in the democratic process still is YOU! You still have to register and you still have to vote. Democracy isn't something you have; it's something you do.

National voter participation statistics provided by the Federal Elections Commission reveal that the lowest percentage of those registering to vote and actually voting are U.S. citizens between the ages of 18 and 24. This age group is not exerting its full influence over the direction this state and nation takes. A look at the "Voter Turnout By Age Group" chart (1976-1996) reveals that the newest generation of eligible voters is by far the lowest in exercising its political clout. (www.fec.gov/pages/agedemog.htm)

Chart

The irony of this situation is that the right of 18 year-old citizens to vote is the newest addition of voting rights to our Constitution. It was passed more quickly than any other Amendment by achieving ratification less than four months after its proposal by Congress. The passage of the 26th Amendment was spurred by the 1960s' protests of students and other young people against the war in Vietnam. "If we're old enough to fight, we're old enough to vote" was the chant; the reply was the 1971 Amendment that reduced the voting age from 21 years to 18 and provided a voice for America's youth in the decisions that affected them.

One generation later, the right secured by youth for youth is being abdicated by the first generation of its beneficiaries. This fact is not wasted on those running for election to positions in our nation, state, counties and cities. Political campaigns have to make choices about the issues they will address and about where to target their spending of limited resources. Is it any wonder then that the youngest group of POTENTIAL voters is the most-ignored constituency?

"A lot of young people don't vote because politicians don't pay attention to them. Meanwhile, politicians don't address young people because they don't vote. It's a cycle that needs to be broken."
��(National Association of Secretaries of State report)

If an elected official's constituents are those voters he or she represents, then the largest group of NON voters will logically be the most "ignored constituency." Voter participation by citizens age 18-24 is the key to honoring the gift of the 26th Amendment and to appearing on the political radar screen of our candidates and leaders.

"We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America."
(Preamble to the Constitution, 1787)

From its very beginning, America's democratic experiment was founded on the twin ideals of citizen rights and citizen responsibilities working in tandem. In the Preamble, notice the words "common," "general" and "posterity." The creators of our nation believed that citizens must be guaranteed basic rights so they can fully participate in their government to defend not only their own interests but also those of their fellow citizens. The assumption was that citizens would feel called to fill the "office of citizen," which requires fulfillment of civic obligations.

The next point to consider is this: no matter what you are most concerned about, there are political decisions being made that affect it. Discrimination in employment and housing or insurance, affordable health and auto insurance for single citizens, personal identity theft, taxes, wages, tuition, reproductive options, equal rights, treaties, military spending, pollution, recycling, Internet and entertainment regulations are all concerns that are impacted by laws. These laws are made either by those whom citizens have elected or by citizens themselves directly.

Some say, "I'm not into politics" when they don't vote or participate in a personal or issue campaign. The truth is, politics affect you whether you join in or not.

The activity that follows will introduce you to concrete examples of how political activism by and for young people had a tremendous impact on their future and on ours! In the activity, you will encounter some profound contributions by young Americans who chose involvement. Their citizenship made a positive impact on our lives today.

ACTIVITY:

Read these short vignettes of positive citizenship and then follow the instructions:

As you can see in these examples, common people throughout our state and national history have risen to the "office of citizen" and in so doing they promoted not only their own interests but also "the general welfare" for so many others.

Identify ten people to interview. Five should be age 21 or younger, the rest any age over 21. You are to choose one of the quotes or one of the vignettes in this lesson and read the quote to each person you interview. When you are sure the quote's meaning is understood by the respondent, ask him or her the following question:

"What example(s) can you share with me from your life, or the life of some American you admire, that shows this quote or vignette in action?"

If necessary you can help start them thinking by sharing some examples from the vignettes. Record their ages and responses. When you are finished, write a one-page paper that includes the following:

  1. The ages of your interview subjects,
  2. The quote or vignette you used,
  3. Your own interpretation of its meaning and its relevance to the focus of this entire lesson,
  4. A list of the five examples given by your respondents that you considered most interesting, impressive or surprising, and
  5. An example of your own that shows you putting this quote or vignette into action already or that reveals a dream you have to do so.
You will be sharing your paper with the class in a manner determined by your teacher.



Vermont Secretary of State Deb Markowitz: http://www.vermontvotesforkids.com