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Civics 101: Rock the Vote

One of my favorite units to teach in Civics is political participation.  I begin the unit by asking students this question: Does one vote matter in the United States?  Overwhelmingly students say “No.” I vividly remember one student, “Sue,” raising her hand and confidently saying in a county of 323 million people one vote does NOT matter.  I replied with one of my favorite phrases: “Well let’s look at the numbers.”

I proceeded to show examples where one vote would have changed the course of history.  In 1776, our leaders in Philadelphia, by a ONE vote margin, chose English instead of German as the official language.  In 1876, ONE vote in the Senate saved President Andrew Johnson from being removed.  Tragically, in 1932 a ONE vote margin gave Adolf Hitler control of the Nazi party in Germany.  Imagine no Hitler and no World War II!

Sue raised her hand again and observed that in each of those instances the vote totals were small.  I said, exactly!

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We then compared apples to apples.  We looked at the 2000 Presidential election in Florida.  When the Supreme Court halted the recount by a ONE vote margin (5-4) in Bush v. Gore (2000), Governor Bush was winning the Sunshine State by 537 votes.

If 269 Floridians, out of over 6.5 million, voted for Vice-President Gore instead of Bush, Gore would have been elected the President.  Locally, a candidate won a City Council seat in Santa Clara by a 3 vote margin not too long ago.  After those examples, Sue understood my point:  ONE vote does matter.

We proceeded to consider that if ONE vote matters, then Americans must have some of the highest voter turnout rates of any country. The students replied of course.

Sadly, such is not the case.  In 1996, when Bill Clinton was re-elected POTUS, only 49 percent of registered voters participated.  That was the lowest voter turnout that year of any western democracy. It was even lower than Mexico’s 60 percent turnout.  We were dead last.

Sue asked how it could be that ONE vote matters while passionately pointing to the poster of Martin Luther King, Jr. who tragically died fighting for suffrage. I replied we must change the way we vote.  We looked at the high turnout rates of other democracies like Brazil (100 percent turnout), Australia (95 percent turnout) and France (80 percent turnout).  What are these counties doing right that we are not?

We then listed reforms that could increase the turnout rate in America and divided them into two categories: cannot happen and can happen.  For the ‘cannot happen’ category:  The U.S. is not going to make voting compulsory like they do in Brazil.  While Americans agree they should vote in higher numbers, the idea of Uncle Sam forcing us to vote runs counter to our political culture.  Additionally, fining people for not voting (as they do in Australia) is a non-starter.

However, we agreed that some easy reforms like voting on a weekend, instead of a Tuesday (like they do in France and Australia), could be an easy fix.  Bernie Sanders proposed a solution: make election day a holiday, Sanders calls it Democracy Day (the students loved that idea).  Other students asked if we can do our shopping online, why can’t we vote online?  Sue asked why we do not have same day voter registration as they do in almost every western democracy?  Lastly, they suggested if they can get a driver’s license at 16-years-old and take Civics when we are 17, why not lower the voting age to 17.

I ended class by saying there is some hope, the turnout rate has seen an uptick from 1996.  In 2016, the U.S. had a 55 percent registered voter turnout and in Santa Clara County it was the highest in decades: a whopping 80 percent.  I left class by saying to them, when you graduate and I see you in our City what I hope to hear you say is “I voted.” After all, ONE vote does matter as Sue proudly asserted as she left the classroom.

Dominic J. Caserta, a teacher at Santa Clara High school and the city’s vice-mayor, is running for the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors in District 4, which includes Santa Clara.  He wrote this article for the Santa Clara Weekly.

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