Teaching and Practicing the Civics of Voting

Disclaimer: Stories from School Arizona guidelines compel contributors to write about issues, like elections, that impact education and to not write about people, like candidates. Accordingly, any similarity between what follows and real people is coincidental. Cue the laugh track.

Mary tuned off the TV in disgust and threw down the remote. “All these shows are stupid! I’m going to go read my book.” I told her if she didn’t watch, she couldn’t complain. And then the fight began.

Of course we didn’t fight. Why would we? No one would expect anyone to watch stupid shows as a condition to griping about them. So, why then, do people – often teachers – endlessly repeat the most platitudinous of platitudes that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain?

Now, I get the difference between turning off the TV and not voting. The people we elect make the decisions that determine the parameters of our freedom. As Evita  (accompanied by an incredibly sexy saxophone) sings to Juan Peron: “But when you act the things you do effect us all.” By comparison, The Real Housewives only effects my digestive track.

Nonetheless, I’m willing to fight anyone who tells me I have to vote. That voting is THE civic duty; that without as close to full participation as possible, we get stuck with inadequate leadership; that close elections come down to only a handful of votes from each district.

First of all, I exercise plenty of civic duties that have a greater impact than my one measly vote – my contributions to charities whose causes I wish to further, for example. I’d immodestly count my writing, too. Perhaps most meaningful would be building a family that doesn’t become an encumbrance on the public.

But forget about me. Inspirational friends, writers, artists, athletes, and teachers(!) mediate the dreams, values, thinking, and civic actions of millions. How does that compare to the single vote each of those luminaries cast?

Moreover, who’s to say that more participation would lead, qualitatively, to better results? If the fifty percent of eligible voters who stay home each election represent a more informed cohort than those who vote, don’t blame them, blame who and what they’re offered to vote for. If they represent a less informed cohort, why would anyone want them voting at all?

And about that close election argument, always made by the losing side: You can’t guarantee that if more people had voted, they’d have voted for your side. Maybe you would have still lost, except by a larger margin.

I’d rather teach a message that puts voting in context. Something like, “Make wise decisions about how and when to vote.” One lesson would include our options when presented choices and candidates you’re not familiar with or don’t like. Another lesson would include a study of the proportional impact of a single vote in different kinds of elections. After all, one’s vote for the local school board counts more, proportionally, than one’s vote for president (and the school board can have significantly more impact on one’s day-to-day life). But whereas everyone can name the presidential candidates, how many can name the school board candidates? (I can for the district I work in but not for the district I vote in.)

Now, I love to vote. I want to vote. I choke up standing in line with soldiers, business people, colleges students, and that guy that looks like Jerry Garcia. Giving consent as one of the governed is a dear gift. But still, without knowledge of the options on the ballot or facing only bad options, I won’t vote. Then, I’ll work to limit the abuses and excesses of whomever is elected. Is that strategy ever taught in schools?

Which brings us a year like 2016, one in which comic entertainers wearing face paint, funny wigs, and baggy clothes compete for our attention – and two clowns compete for our votes. A year like that, as Jonah Goldberg says, is like looking at a menu listing two [expletive] sandwiches on different kinds of bread. Nothing is irresponsible about walking out of that restaurant. Likewise, a fair argument can be made that the most civic thing to do is to tell the major parties that we ain’t ordering from their menu until they offer a more nutritious selection.

But most people will order off the menu. They’ll claim that Thing 1 isn’t perfect but Thing 2 will put us on the express lane to the Apocalypse. So, on November 9, we’ll wake up and say, as two twentysomethings might say as they wake up, look across the sheets, and see who they’ve fallen into bed with during a night of youthful indiscretion, “Seriously?”

Yes, seriously. But the real question is: What now?

To which the answer is yet a third question: Are we Walter White or Jesse Pinkman? In Breaking Bad, for the uninitiated (and ignoring the meth-empire they built), Walter revealed, layer-by-layer, the evil residing at his core. Jesse, starting at less than zero, developed, at great cost, the good residing at his.

If the answer is Walter, we’re sunk. But I think the answer is Jesse. I think that as we get out of bed after the election and wash the debauchery of 2016 out of our sheets, we’ll commit the good that remains to (re)building a nation that aligns with our individual and collective ideals.

And teachers will carry a heavier portion of that load than most.




Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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