Political literacy has declined rapidly in the United States in recent decades. In the 1960s, it was common for high school students to take upwards of two years of civics. Now they may take only one or two semesters. The result is that only 28 percent of high school seniors scored proficient or better on the National Assessment for Educational Progress’ civics exam. Only history saw worse results. With Election Day approaching, these young adults will be able to sway the vote, thus determining who runs the most powerful country in the world — but many of them don’t even know how the government works.
The first issue I would like to address is that of unfulfilled campaign promises. Every election, presidential hopefuls, among others, promise that they will do outlandish things. That wouldn’t be so bad if the majority of people didn’t actually believe the candidates. People hear, “I will lower taxes,” and automatically assume that it will be good for them. Instead, they should ask the question “Which taxes?” Because if the capital gains tax goes down and the income tax goes up, that isn’t going to help me much, but the candidate will have fulfilled his promise. Also, one must think about what programs may be cut in order for taxes to decrease.
Furthermore, it is important for people to understand if the promises are politically feasible. If President Barack Obama says he will make gay marriage legal and one doesn’t understand how the political system works, one may actually think that Obama can just declare gay marriage legal. Unless people are educated in civics, they can’t make sufficiently informed decisions when choosing a candidate.
Attack ads are also a problem because they mislead people and sway the feeble-minded who don’t do their own research. For instance, I could air this ad about New York Representative Louise Slaughter: “Over 1,200 people have died in workplace fatalities in New York since Slaughter was elected.” The ad is meaningless, but some may jump to the conclusion that she is responsible for these deaths. Ironically, annual workplace fatalities have gone down and more safety regulations have been put in place since she has been in office, but this ad, which would technically be factual, would still sway some voters against her.
Worse than the attack ads are the false rumors that are often spread about each candidate. You don’t know how often I hear the sentence, “Obama is a communist” or “Obama is going to ban religion in public.” More recently I heard “Obama is going to allow U.N. troops to occupy the U.S.” And the person saying it was quite serious. Most people don’t do any fact-checking, or bother to learn the definitions of the terms they use, yet they are still allowed to vote. This is a serious problem.
If the wisdom of the law and of a country’s economic policies is up to elected officials, voters need to be wise. If they are not wise enough to vote for the best candidate, then they shouldn’t be allowed to cast a ballot.
I propose that state departments of education mandate at least three semesters of civics and two semesters of economics be taught to every high school student. Upon graduation from high school, U.S. citizens should have to take a test — one that could be retaken every four years — concerning the structure of the U.S. government, the U.S. legal system and simple economic theory. If they don’t pass, then they can’t vote. This test would create a more qualified pool of voters, which is what this country needs.
Ondo is a member of the class of 2014.