Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Solving the Vanishing Voter Mystery

by Shawn Healy, Resident Scholar

Chicago’s voter registration rolls sank to their lowest level in the post-World War II era, according to Monday’s report from the Chicago Board of Elections. Clearly this doesn’t bode well for participation in next month's primary.

Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown dissected these figures with local Election Commissioners Chairman Langdon Neal, surmising that the pending March 20th primary is a "low-interest election" for Chicagoans given the city’s deep-blue Democratic hue and a contested presidential nomination process relegated to Republican contenders. Their point that the city’s population is declining and voter registration lists have been subsequently scrubbed is also spot on.

Neal and Brown agree that voters also feel disconnected from the political process, but are at a loss in explaining its root cause. I believe this disconnect is a product of two deficiencies: one related to voter registration itself, and the other, our failure to prepare young people for their roles as citizens in a democracy through our formal education system.

Illinois residents cannot register to vote at frequently-visited facilities like schools, college campuses, and hospitals. Moreover, Illinois does not allow for Election Day registration like neighboring states who regularly lead the nation in voter turnout (Minnesota, formerly Wisconsin). In order to vote on March 20th, residents must register by next Tuesday, February 21st.

Even more important, however, is the general lack of preparation for participation in the democratic process. Two generations ago, civic learning was embedded in schools’ formal curriculum. Three civics courses in high school were standard, one focusing on government institutions, another on current events, and a third on civic engagement. Today, we’re lucky if schools offer a single American government class as the social studies have been squeezed by high-stakes tests that focus solely on math and reading.

Select schools throughout the Chicagoland area have embraced proven civic learning practices, and in the process prepare young people for roles we are all assigned, that of citizens. High-quality civic learning pairs knowledge acquisition with skill development, and leads young people to believe that they can make a difference and that government will respond to their concerns. This formula neutralizes collective apathy, and is among the recipes for civic renewal.

Local and statewide adoption of these practices, coupled with liberalized voter registration laws, would revitalize registration rolls and simultaneously solve the local vanishing voter mystery.

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