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3-Minute Civics: Experiment shows danger of an uninformed vote

  • With so many candidates, voters can be overwhelmed trying to determine what’s fair, accurate and relevant. AP

For the Monitor
Published: 7/6/2019 9:00:20 PM

Know what you’re voting for, not just whom.

“Wait a minute… what are we voting for?” the student asks.

It’s a fair question, but I deflect because I don’t want to answer it yet.  I tell my class, “We are just practicing voting right now” as I hand out the ballots marked with four choices.  There is more grumbling, but they proceed to vote for candidate A, B, C or D. Candidate A wins.

I ask my students, “How did that feel?”  The answers come quickly: “frustrating,” “dumb”...etc.  I ask, “Would you feel better if you knew who you were voting for?” The students assure me that this would make all of the difference. I put up two line descriptions of the candidates:

“Candidate A focuses on environmental reform and agricultural improvement and is a firm believer in the separation of church and state.

Candidate B is running a campaign on strong leadership qualities and is considered by some to be a great comeback story.

Candidate C claims to be an outsider to the current system and is a strong advocate for changing the economic distribution that currently exists.

Candidate D lacks government service experience and mainly campaigns on prior work through charitable organizations.”

With these descriptions, there is no protest from the students. They are happy to vote now. This time Candidate B has won a squeaker over Candidate A with C a distant third and D coming in last.

Again, I ask the students how the voting felt. “Much better” they reply. I ask, “Would you like to know a little more about the candidates?” and already some of them are on to my game.

I reveal that Candidate D is Mother Teresa, Candidate C is Swiper (the fox who is always trying to steal things from Dora the Explorer), Candidate A is Pol Pot (a dictator in Cambodia’s past whose policies led to the death of over one quarter of the population) and our winner, Candidate B, is Voldemort (of Harry Potter infamy).  I point out how all of the short descriptions I gave them are technically accurate (the death eaters probably considered Voldemort to be a great comeback story). At this point I admit that I put my thumb on the scale a bit because there are three “bad” candidates and only one “good” candidate. Setting that aside, I ask, “What’s the point?”

The students get it: If we vote with no information we are leaving the result to chance which could be bad (Pol Pot), but if we vote with only a little information the result could be equally bad or worse (Voldemort).

Each time I lead a class through this exercise, I am reminded how important the lesson is, not just for my students, but for all of us. Well-intentioned campaigns like MTV’s famous “Rock the Vote” perhaps only conveyed part of an important message. Yes, it is important to vote, but an uninformed vote can be destructive to your own interest or to our society. We need a “Rock the Research” movement because if we don’t really know what a candidate stands for, we may be empowering what we don’t want.

Of course, being an informed voter is not easy. In the exercise above, my students learned about one trap door, which is to act on limited, but truthful information. In the real world of politics, there are other challenges. Whether you agree with it or not, the 2010 decision, Citizens United vs. FEC opened the door to much more money being spent on campaign messaging. Because the commercials produced in the wake of this decision are not done by the candidates themselves, they can often be more flexible when it comes to the truth. Given New Hampshire’s status as the first-in-the-nation primary and the fact that we are a swing state, voters here will be inundated by political commercials during an election year. Sifting through all of this for fair, accurate and relevant information can be daunting.

I have attempted to give my students some tools to help them navigate this. After we complete the voting exercise, I show the students examples of political commercials that have been used in past elections by both major parties. We analyze each commercial by asking two questions: Is it effective? Is it fair? The first question has the students consider if they are being swayed by the commercial. The second addresses the more important question of whether it is presenting a good faith argument for or against a candidate, or whether it is an unfair or untrue attempt at manipulation.

When Ben Franklin emerged from the Constitutional Convention in 1787, he was asked what type of government the delegates had created. Franklin said, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Perhaps the key to keeping our republic is to make sure that the leaders we elect represent the character and policies that we want. As voters, this means we need to put in the time and energy needed to be truly informed.

So, if you find yourself being swayed by a short story on the news, maybe ask yourself whether you really have enough information. If you feel you are being moved by a political advertisement, maybe ask whether it is influencing you in a fair and honest way. In that republic created by Franklin and the other founders, the only way the Pol Pots or the Voldemorts of our society can get power is if we the voters unwittingly give it to them.

(Dan Marcus teaches Civics at John Stark Regional High School. He lives in Concord.)

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