As a former civics teacher and principal who championed the role of student government, the lack of voter turnout in last week’s Board of Supervisors election concerns me. The race to represent the residents of District 2, one of only five districts in Santa Clara County, was certainly well reported by this news outlet and others.
The issues brought up by the two candidates over the two-month campaign are all critical to the region. Over $1 million was spent on reaching voters who care about crime, education, government reform, pension liability and improving county services to residents.
And yet, only 20.77 percent of registered voters in District 2 participated in the election. This is the other story behind the victory of Supervisor-elect Cindy Chavez. The lack of participation in the election, made infinitely easier with mail-in ballots, is a phenomenon that challenges our very democracy. We can and must do better.
Please take note, superintendents, college presidents, college trustees, deans, school board members and principals. Your leadership within our state system of public schools, from preschool through grade 16, needs to become more focused on civic education to alter this perilous, undemocratic trajectory.
One definition of a democracy is a system of government based on the principle of majority decision-making; another is that we elect representatives of the people by the people. Last Tuesday’s runoff for county supervisor is an example of the system failing.
In 2010, there were 1,139,951 eligible voters in Santa Clara County. However, only 68.3 percent (779,330) are registered to vote. In District 2, there are 117,716 registered voters, but only 24,450 participated in the Tuesday vote.
Only a fifth of registered voters participated at 20.77 percent, which was actually just 15.8 percent of eligible voters in District 2. That means Supervisor-elect Chavez, the winner of the plebiscite, received votes from only 11.4 percent of the registered voters and 8.7 percent of the eligible voters. The winning margin was nearly 11 percent of the total vote, yet the raw 2,674-vote discrepancy between Chavez and Alvarado was only 2.3 percent—1.7 percent of eligible voters—of the total registered.
Schools are the guardian of our democracy, and clearly their civic mission must be expanded and refocused. Only school leaders, policy makers and elected officials can make a renewed focus a reality. The new common core gives educators and leaders an opportunity to reboot civic education. Here are some things that can be done over time to grow participation that leads to more votes at the “ballot box”:
• Integrate English-Language Arts and History-Social Science to provide each student the experience with class readings/discussions on equality, fairness, representative democracy, due process, prejudice, social movements (e.g. Vietnam anti-war efforts of the 1960s-70s vs. The Tea Party anti-tax/government positions of 2010).
• Have students take positions they do not understand/agree with through writing, speaking and debating from a well-researched position. After a focused debate, engage the entire class in the discussion.
• Provide more time for discussions of current events locally, statewide nationally and internationally.
• Purchase new, innovative instructional content to support the effort in civic education. NewSchools Venture Fund, located in this county, just funded a new company called Newsela.com, a reading leveled, online news site for all students, which is purported to be common core aligned.
• Require graduation requirements at 8th grade, 12th grade and 16th grade that integrate extracurricular opportunities in the civic/governmental process.
• Expand the role of meaningful student governments in schools.
California’s elected leaders should study other states and regions with the highest voter participation rates. Why does Minnesota have the highest voter turnout—76.1 percent in 2012—for eight of the last nine midterm and presidential elections? Is it because what is emphasized in Minnesota schools? Is it because of the ease to register, even on the day of the election? Why did California’s voter turnout rank drop from 33 out of 50 in 2008’s presidential election to 41st—55.9 percent turnout in 2012—in 2012?
An engaged citizenry is essential for our democracy to flourish. The facts indicate we did not have an engaged electorate last week in District 2.
Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native.