Campaign advertisements are making the rounds on television. Political pundits are discussing House races. We will be receiving ballots in our mailboxes in the next few weeks.
The signs are all there: It is election season again.
It seems like we are always casting our ballots for something, with either midterms or presidential elections rolling around every two years and many more state and local matters — from propositions to primaries to gubernatorial elections — sprinkled in between. Many of us have heard that it is important to vote, but as we cast our votes, do we place the same importance on how we are voting and what we are doing to prep for such a task?
In a republic such as the U.S., we have placed our faith in the idea that the people hold the power, meaning we can, as a group, determine the route of our nation. However, the only way to develop a successfully functioning power-to-the-people system is if the members of the electorate make individual efforts to thoroughly understand the foundations of the nation, their rights and the issues at hand.
In a study conducted in 2017 by the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center, surveyors found that many Americans lack a basic understanding of the structure of the government. 37% of those surveyed could not identify a First Amendment right, and only 26% could identify all three branches of the U.S. government. This lack of a basic understanding of the Constitution highlights a concerning existence of political ignorance in our electorate. How can members of the nation successfully vote for candidates and solutions if they do not have a foundational knowledge of why our country is structured the way it is?
This trend in a lack of knowledge about the origins of our nation presents a concerning precedent for understanding the U.S. in a modern context. If the electorate does not understand the basic aspects of the U.S. government, how can it be expected to make decisions that will impact how it operates and who is operating it?
While I am sure the education system plays a role in this lack of understanding, we also must acknowledge the individual responsibility we all possess to do the necessary research to both understand our nation’s foundational principles and to better understand our nation through the modern scope. This responsibility entails not only figuring out which issues and candidates we will be voting on in November, but also researching policies, the pros and cons of any solution or candidate and how voting for a certain solution or candidate will impact the nation on a larger scale.
Unfortunately, even the process of seeking out political news and researching it can contribute to political ignorance if we do not use the best sources. According to a 2020 Pew Research Center study, 18% of U.S. adults primarily found political news on social media, and 48% of this group were ages 18-29.
While this method of finding political news is a good stepping stone, using social media as one’s sole source of gaining political knowledge will not result in an informed electorate. Rather, as we research political topics, we must be wary of bias and attempt to understand an issue holistically through consulting reliable sites and individuals.
Most importantly, as we consider knowledge that we gain about various political topics, we should use our most powerful tools: our minds. We have the power to think critically about issues and analyze how a political decision or policy might impact not only ourselves, but also others, including those who might be different from us. For example, have you lived in the city your whole life? When you encounter an issue about agriculture, do your due diligence and research how a decision might impact a farmer living in another part of your state instead of blindly casting your vote.
The midterms are not a presidential election, so I know they are less exciting. It can be more difficult to see their purpose in the greater fabric of the nation. I also know it can be easier, especially as busy college students living in a politically polarized society, to push politics far out of our minds and exist in our own bubbles. However, I encourage you to embrace politics and do your research because, at the end of the day, most issues — including those you care about — are political in some way. The decisions we make when we vote directly impact us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
So, I encourage you to show up and cast your ballot this election season. But please do not do it unless you are confident in your decisions and have done your due diligence, because your last-minute decision at the ballot box could be impacting someone else’s life. Be aware of your power and wield it wisely.