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Using Down-Ballot Races to Encourage Informed Voting


Headshot of John C. Silva, NBCT Director of education

John C. Silva, NBCT Director of education

Knowing whom or what you’re voting for (or against) is a lot more complicated than young people realize.

On the surface, voting is a remarkably simple act: Go to your polling place, get a ballot, put a mark by the name of the candidate of your choice and place the ballot in a box or a scanner. (In some states, it’s even easier: All registered voters can cast their ballot by mail.)

To be an informed voter, however, takes quite a bit of work. This is especially true when you take a look at all the offices and ballot issues that appear below the ones we’re all familiar with. In focusing on electing presidents, senators, governors and mayors, we often don’t pay attention to these down-ballot offices.

What does it mean to be an informed voter? The American Association of State Colleges and Universities’ American Democracy Project defines it as being “knowledgeable about the issues and positions of candidates when voting. It also means you are able to make decisions without influence from outside factors intended to persuade those who may not fully understand a candidate’s platform or ideas.”

I think it’s safe to say that many of us have cast uninformed votes.

My ballot in the March 2018 Illinois primary — with 35 races and four ballot questions — was a daunting challenge in casting an informed vote. For instance, I found myself looking at a couple of job titles — Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner and Commissioner, Board of Review, 2nd District — and pondering what made the candidates for those positions qualified to hold them.

A number of judgeships and county-level offices also gave me pause (why were these positions on the ballot to begin with?). And while the ballot questions were simple enough to answer (the choice was “yes” or “no”), they added to the burden of trying to cast informed votes.

These down-ballot contests and questions offer students a unique opportunity to engage in purposeful deliberation about the impact of these offices on their communities. If “all politics is local,” as former U.S. Speaker of the House Thomas “Tip” O’Neill once famously quipped, it doesn’t get more local than some of these races.

Here’s an interesting starting point for discussion: Should all the offices currently on the ballot be elected positions? Examples of ones that are (or are not) elected, depending on the state, are judges, county coroners and sheriffs, as well as assorted commissioners and state party committeemen and committeewomen. To start this process, students (and many current voters) need to understand exactly what each position does and how that affects them and their communities.

Consider the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Chicago and is the second most populous county in the United States. It’s responsible for ensuring the quality of the county’s water supply (which comes from Lake Michigan), protecting homes and businesses from flood damage and managing water as a vital resource. The MWRD is governed by an elected body of nine commissioners — the people who appear down-ballot and represent the residents of Cook County. Using these commissioners as an example, I thought of a series of questions for students to consider (which I also considered before casting my votes):

  1. Why are these commissioners elected?
  2. What are the qualifications I would want in someone who was responsible for making sure I have clean drinking water?
  3. Should I take a candidate’s political affiliation into consideration?
  4. Do these candidates’ viewpoints and positions on water issues differ? If so, how?

An interesting exercise for students is to have them search local news sources for stories about the positions. For my MWRD example, I would have students search Chicago-area news organizations for stories that mention the agency or some of the serving commissioners. Instead of relying solely on campaign materials, what can students learn from news coverage? Can these stories provide criteria for evaluating candidates?

This also raises several broader questions about voting in general: Is it ethical to cast a vote for a candidate you know nothing about other than his or her name and political party? Is not voting at all worse than casting an uninformed vote? If a race has only one candidate, should you still cast a vote?

Talking about these down-ballot races in the classroom will open your students’ eyes to just how many elected officials there are at each level of government: federal, state, county and municipal. Your discussions can help focus your students on the lesser-known offices that have a profound effect on their communities. Inevitably (and hopefully), students will continue talking about this with their family members at home.

Most boards of elections provide sample ballots well in advance of election day. Some also publish detailed voter guides, as do some local good-government organizations and some news outlets. (Special interest groups may publish these as well to promote candidates whose views they agree with.) Providing these sample ballots or voter guides to your students can be an important first step in researching and discussion down-ballot races and questions.

I’ll close this post with another question for deliberation. When I go vote, I routinely refer to it as doing my “civic duty.” Voting is regularly described as a right, a responsibility and a duty. We rank voting as being very high in importance, but in the United States it is not compulsory. So is voting a duty that we are obligated to perform, or is it a right that we can exercise as we desire?

In the next post, I’ll share some ideas and resources for becoming a better-informed voter and explain — for example, from newspaper editorial boards, from celebrities and from labor unions — all aiming to persuade you to vote a specific way.

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