Democracy: Use it or lose it

It’s time we took a good, hard look at civics education and election modernization


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My friend “Alex” is big on community. In his thirty-odd years of life, the Nashua native has seen enough hardship to know that sinking alone is easy but swimming alone is not. 

There were times when Alex was sure he was going to sink. Nashua North High School had its fair share of drug and alcohol abuse when he was a student, he knows what it is like to live on the brink and watch others go over. If things were rough then, they are even rougher now for our kids: New Hampshire ranks first in the nation for young adult drinking, third for binge drinking, and in the top 10 for other drug use by teens. The recent opioid epidemic is a sobering case in point.

Nevertheless, with the help of a good mentor and a community of people striving to get clean, Alex pulled through. More than that, he now spends hours a day helping others do the same, alongside his job in construction.

All that and more has taught him that quality of life is measured by the quality of one’s relationships – by community close to home. Yet for all his community spirit, Alex has little interest in that larger sphere of community called politics. “I don’t even think about politics,” he tells me. “Never felt like I had a voice.”

Alex isn’t alone. As the New Hampshire presidential primary enters its final, fanatical phase, most Americans remain relatively disengaged, and past results suggest a majority of Granite Staters will stay home on Feb. 9. Only one in five eligible voters consistently turns out to vote in New Hampshire, and the vast majority cannot name their elected representatives, according to the Open Democracy Index.

It’s not because elections don’t matter, especially for folks like Alex who are struggling with addiction in a state that ranks at the bottom of prevention and rehabilitation services. Yet our failure to invest in prevention and other needs – even when there is a proven payoff in financial and human terms – is linked to our failure to invest in democracy itself. 

To solve that underlying problem and help community-minded but politically disengaged people like Alex make their voices heard, it’s time we took a good, hard look at civics education and election modernization. 

For a state that takes pride in our democracy, requiring a single quarter-class in civics for high school students is a joke. Don’t take my word for it. At a recent Nashua forum, retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter observed that the greatest problem facing America is civic ignorance. “There is a serious question whether in fifty years we will have a recognizable democracy,” he said. “Anybody who’s optimistic about it has got to be out of their mind.”

A new bill introduced by NH Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, would establish an Innovative Civics Education fund for high schools and ensure transparency and election law enforcement with help of a modest fee on political expenditures.

Given the barrage of nasty and misleading attacks from out-of-state Super PACs, a fee to promote reasoned and informed debate among up-and-coming citizens seems fitting. The Center for Civic Education and Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s iCivics have plenty of good ideas for how to get it done, if the NH legislature will only step up to the plate and provide much-needed funds.

Civics education goes hand in glove with election modernization to promote full and informed participation at the polls. Rather than going backwards by passing a constitutionally suspect 30-day waiting period to vote and other suppressive measures, the Legislature should embrace 21st century modes of political participation by joining the 31 other states with secure online voter registration and by normalizing polling place hours and accessibility.

Better still, we should move to automatic voter registration and an Election Day holiday – proven methods of preventing potential fraud and ensuring equal participation.

As we enter an important election year 2016, my hope for Alex and all “our kids” is that we build community in our daily lives and in the life of our nation, in politics. That will require fresh approaches to civics education and voter engagement. What better time to begin? 

Daniel Weeks of Nashua is executive director of Open Democracy and author of “Democracy in Poverty: A View From Below (PoorInDemocracy.org).”

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