Thursday, June 01, 2006

Civics in NH

The NH legislative session is winding down. Bills of varying levels of importance have been dealt with, and now it’s time for our legislators to hit the campaign trail. Yes, Virginia, it’s an election year. In NH we will be electing a governor, all of our state representatives and senators, county officials, and our two US Congresspersons. In 2004 record numbers of new voters registered, and voted. In Carroll County 2,902 people registered to vote on Election Day. Will all of these new voters maintain their interest in civic participation?

There are populations that traditionally do not vote in representative numbers; women, people with low incomes, people of color, and young people. In 1972 about half of the age 18-24 group voted. By 2000 that number had dropped to 33 percent. In 2004, the presidential election increased the number to about 45 percent. Why don’t our young people vote? In a state that is governed by a citizen legislature, why aren’t we more concerned about this? What can we do to interest more of our young people in the civic process?

I registered to vote when I turned 18. I’ve voted in every election since then. When I was growing up, I was taught that voting was my right, and my duty. All freshmen in my high school were required to take a civics class. Civics was a solid grounding in the nuts and bolts of how our system of government works. We learned what our role in a participatory democracy is. By that point in our education, we’d already had years of romanticized US history. Civics was a welcome change because it was much more practical stuff. It was the early seventies, and even though the politics of the time were extremely contentious, we were still expected to grow up to be voting citizens.

Somewhere along the way, that expectation has changed. We stopped teaching civics, too. At the website of my alma mater, I couldn’t find a civics class listed, but it does seem to have been thoroughly integrated into their Social Studies curricula. Civics is not mandatory in NH, which is particularly unfortunate given our enormous volunteer legislature. We expect NH residents to run for office and serve – so shouldn’t we educate our youth to be prepared for the possibility?

In 2005, Representative Paul Smith, from Auburn, sponsored HB 435 a bill that would require a civics class for high school graduation. A similar bill (SB 82) was filed in the Senate. Paul Smith is 24, and one of the youngest members of the NH legislature. For his graduate thesis at UNH, he surveyed junior and senior political science majors on their knowledge, and then gave them the same test that potential US citizens take. Many of them failed the citizenship exam. Smith became determined to try to enact some positive change. The bill had bi-partisan support and sponsorship, but ultimately it was voted inexpedient to legislate. The Senate bill was sponsored by Democrats, and was ultimately killed as well. The prevailing sentiment was that the legislature should not mandate what classes are taught – that this should be decided locally.

They didn’t feel that same sense of “local control” when it came to abstinence only sex education. The legislature was more than happy to try to make that a mandate, with HB 39, which was filed in 2005, and finally killed in 2006. It was killed because studies show that abstinence only sex education seems to cause an increase in teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease. Apparently we’re more in favor of playing roulette with teen sexual behavior than we are in educating them about their roles as citizens. Local control has been so perverted by the legislature in recent years that it has become nothing but a convenient excuse for inaction. We claim to want our young people to participate in our democracy – so we should be in favor of educating them to do so.

Instead there have been deliberate attempts to discourage college students from voting. There is a faction that believes wholeheartedly that college students “from away” are just dying to come here and vote, and change our one party system of government. The fact that the majority party has had control of the NH House since the Civil War does nothing to assuage their fears. They are convinced that all manner of voter fraud takes place here, despite reports from the Secretary of State’s office showing no evidence of fraud – and despite the outcome of our elections! In fact, the last documented case of fraud was a kid who voted under his father’s name – as a Republican.

What we teach our children matters. We are certainly willing to allow television and advertising to teach our children how to be consumers. We teach reading and math – why not teach citizenship?

“American youth attributes much more importance to arriving at driver’s license age than at voting age.” Marshall McLuhan

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