Voting Today in A Vermont Village After Teaching

As much as I love my students, I scolded them soundly today. I don’t know why I was so shocked when over half said they weren’t voting in the primary, and some weren’t intending to vote in the general election either. They couldn’t understand my dismay. They didn’t see the big deal–their feeling of disconnection from the political process was stunning. Perhaps because I have recently pushed myself out of my higher ed torpor to take a stand about how I intend to participate in a more inclusive, cross-cultural, community-intensive educational process, I am taking pretty hard their rejection of any stand about their country’s future.

It’s unimaginable to me to be 18, 19 or 20 and NOT vote. It was what turning 18 was all about! Even when I have been unhappy with the choices, I have worked hard to participate in campaigns, conversations, and always always always to vote. I’ve written in candidates from time to time when the choices were too grim to consider, but I’ve been there in the booth, pencil in hand.

I urged my students at least–if they couldn’t bring themselves to vote for a presidential candidate, if they really could see no difference between the lot of them–to make sure they voted for local, state and national legislators as well as all those school board members trying to make a difference. And to think about running for office themselves if they didn’t like the state of things.

As I drove through town past the stream of Obama and Clinton campaign signs listing in rapidly melting snowbanks, I thought some more about my students’ response. What would get them to get excited about participating in their democracy, these students at a school of considerable influence and privilege? By the time I finally arrived at our town clerk’s office at around 4:00, I had missed the famous pie sale—probably a good thing– but overheard the town clerk say that over 300 of our 630 registered voters had preceded me into our small booths. I thought of my students, too, in that moment as my eye fell on my daughter’s name on the Voter List along with the check and note, Absentee Ballot, next to it.

In the wee booth I saved the democratic primary ballot for last, moving through the green, blue and yellow local ballots first–the names of those running representing people I know, my neighbors and friends. Those votes were easy to make. Then I turned to the final sheet. The names, “Hillary Clinton” and “Barak Obama,” on the white ballot hit me in a way that even all the talk, the reading, the campaigning had not–these two names signify such a shift, such a promise: that a woman–a woman!– could be a serious contender for the White House, finally; that a black man with a name that conjures up visions of an open, multicultural society could be surging to the head of the pack–well, I was just about overwhelmed right in that tiny booth behind the red-white-and-blue curtain. And I voted. With relish.


Thursday I’ll go into class and talk again about voting–I’ll show them my little “I voted” sticker, and tease them a bit. Then we’ll explore ways that the deep, compelling creativity they are unveiling in this course can push them beyond our walls and into the community, and even how it can can help them envision participating in the political processes of their times. Just imagine what kinds of names might be on ballot by the time they’re my age–I’d like to know that they had a hand in it.


7 Responses

  1. Barbara –

    Did you discuss absentee balloting? Might most of your students not be resident in Vermont, at least from a legal point of view.

    On a national level, I believe more people know the Presidential candidates than the local candidates, because of the way information is communicated with the mass media. Would your students have cause to know the local candidates? I believe that here they would not. (And on the primary ballot in Illinois, there were none.)

    I was too young to vote for McGovern, and while I did vote in 1976, the passion in that election wasn’t the same. This is a year when there should be passion in voting, just as you describe. On the other hand, we economists teach that voting is irrational – do the cost-benefit on the time cost versus the likelihood that the vote decides the outcome. But if they don’t vote in Vermont based on that analysis they won’t vote anywhere, and it seems turnout is actually going gang busters in Texas, where the theory should predict otherwise. So something else is afoot.

  2. Hi Barbara – I was very taken with your post. As a non-US observer (with a not too secret interest in American Politics – for reasons that often puzzle others and, well, me sometimes too), I was really surprised to hear that so few of your students planned to vote – especially this year, especially these choices…as you suggest there is certainly something to be relished here! How does it not speak to them? I really hope that your comments will have reached some of them and hopefully made them reconsider – if not about today (yesterday?) about November and so that they can get to experience the relish too!

    I remember my first nation election vote at 18 – it was a daunting experience (and even now, it still is a little) but it was also very profound – perhaps its impact has to be felt to be believed?

  3. Much as I can’t relate to it, either, I am not surprised that your students aren’t voting. It’s not just a US phenomenon – it seems to be prevalent in many countries. They don’t see that it has anything to do with them. They tell you they’re “not interested in politics”.

    Perhaps the curriculum for history/citizenship/IHE/PSHE or any of those related subjects should include an understanding of what “politics” are and what is affected by them, of what the vote is and how hard the common man and woman had to fight to get it.

  4. Here in EU and specific NL we have a lot of youngsters, including students taht aren’t voting at all. That is a pity, as we have democratic government and so on.

    But nice that you there were enough votes to get the battle in its former shape! Good to watch, the US elections as they DO influence our EU.

  5. More thoughts on this phenomenon:

    Lanny, yes, I did talk about absentee ballots, and the ones who did vote, did it that way. It does take a concerted effort to register to vote, to send for a ballot, to fill it out, and to send it back. Kids aren’t using the U.S. mail very much. What if they could vote online?

    As for local candidates, you’re right–they probably are not particularly engaged with the issues from their home states and towns, and certainly not with Vermont’s–they reside in a kind of limbo, the years before assuming their adult lives. I wonder, though, if we privilege that kind of in-between-ness, that kind of four years of purgatory in higher ed. What if our students were out in the communities more, contributing their energy and knowledge and creativity to social and environmental problems–would they then find themselves more inclined to participate in the political process? Don’t you have to feel as though you belong in order to participate?

    Karyn, your comments about how Civics is taught in the schools is spot on, I think. We don’t, in many U. S. schools, do a good job at all preparing our students for active citizenship. Why aren’t kids at the polls working, viewing the process? Interviewing candidates? Grappling with the issues of the day in class, and tracking those issues through history?

    Louise and Geld, many thanks for your comments from across the Atlantic puddle; it’s comforting (and disturbing, in equal measures) to know that we are not alone in this predicament. And it isn’t a new development, either, of course. But THIS year I thought our youth would on fire. I watch your elections, too, knowing that we all have an impact on one another and need to learn from each other (though the U.S. doesn’t like to admit that).


  6. As a social studies teacher I hammer my 7th grade female students about each country & the rights of females or not. They tend to look at me in disbelief that I think it is so important.

    We live in the time of so much choice and they do not realize it. Choices have changed since I started teaching 30 years ago.

    I too think it is so exciting to have these two as our choices. We don’t get to vote until May and it might even make a difference this time.;)

  7. I can’t vote till May, and my primary vote has NEVER made a difference on the national level. Tell one of those disinterested students that I’d gladly trade votes!

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