Christina Hale: Investing in Indiana civics education
Friday, February 03, 2017 10:52 AM
INDIANAPOLIS – There has been a great deal of controversy and legislation to address voter fraud here in Indiana and now nationally in the recent and very recent past. In fact, since 2005, Indiana has had one of the most stringent voter ID laws in the country.
Long before the issue of fraud was raised in the recent national election, here Indiana we’ve attempted to legislate even more prescriptive law, even though as U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the Supreme Court’s majority that held up the law’s constitutionality in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, said that “the record contains no evidence of any such fraud actually occurring in Indiana at any time in its history.”
OK. We all get that the American political landscape since then has changed significantly, and we struggle to understand how and why. Certainly there are a number of contributing factors. Compounding our obsession with phantom fraud is the anemic voter turnout for which Indiana has become infamous. Notably, we had the worst turnout in the nation in 2014.
Rather than spending time on problems we don’t have, perhaps it is time to help people engage in the civic process and make better informed decisions at the polling place. Rather than worry about phantom voter fraud, perhaps we should be addressing the the issue of relative civic ignorance here in Indiana (as well as nationally).
You won’t find these topics we used to call social studies on the ISTEP, but there is currently a commendable move in the legislature to beef up requirements for our high school students to gain a better mastery of government, American and Indiana history. This is both timely and important.
Clearly, it has been demonstrated time and again that a high percentage of the voting-age population is ignorant of very basic facts we expect them to know. Most of us accept that knowledge of civics that is necessary to make rational choices as we cast our ballots, but evidence suggests that we fall short of the mark.
In 2010, The Atlantic magazine reported some shocking findings:
ν Americans were more able to identify Michael Jackson as the composer of a number of songs than to know that the Bill of Rights was the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
ν When asked in what century the American Revolution took place and whether the Civil War, the War of 1812, and the Emancipation Proclamation preceded or followed the Revolution, more than 30 percent of respondents answered that question incorrectly.
ν More than a third of Americans did not know that the Bill of Rights guarantees a right to a trial by jury. The Atlantic also reported more recently that in a study of historical knowledge carried out in 2015 for the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), more than 80 percent of college seniors at 55 top-ranked institutions would have received a grade of either a D or F.
ν Only about 20 percent knew that James Madison was the father of the Constitution, while over 60 percent gave the title to Thomas Jefferson.
ν More than 40 percent of college graduates did not know that the Constitution grants the power to declare war to Congress.
ν Roughly half of college students could not correctly state the length of the terms of members of the Senate or the House of Representatives.
Several years ago I attended a Tea Party meeting. I had been invited by a constituent, and appreciated the opportunity talk with people I wouldn’t usually have a chance to meet.
Sitting at a round table, listening to the speaker, a pretty woman shook her head so sadly. She whispered to me about how depressed the meeting made her feel. She was depressed and angry. I walked out of there impressed.
The conversations there were a bit dire and angry for certain, but the people there knew their stuff. A young man even handed me a pocket copy of the Indiana Constitution. My hope is that people in all political parties value knowledge of government and our governing documents so well.
We have a golden opportunity now to support this effort in the General Assembly to amp up our approach to civics education for the Indiana students of today to become better informed voters of tomorrow. Let’s run with it.
Hale is the 2016 Democratic lieutenant governor nominee and a former member of the Indiana House of Representatives.