Tag Archives: voting

Democracy Distilled – an Infographic on Voting Rights produced by eLocal


Source: Democracy DistilledbyeLocalLawyers.com

In honor of Inauguration Day, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the folks at eLocal produced an interesting, evocative Infographic video about the history of voting rights in this country.  It’s hard to believe, but there was a time when even white men were restricted from the ballot box–the ones who were poor, that is.  The video follows how far we have come in the 237 years since independence, showing progress by state and demographic group.

This is a great resource for the classroom to show the big picture of American democracy, and to discuss where we need to go in the future.

Enjoy, and make sure to watch the Inauguration on Monday…even if you voted for the other guy.  The process of government is what makes us great, not the people in it.

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Videos for the Classroom: Election Day on Sesame Street

This was, honest to God, the very first time I ever heard about voting.

When I was a kid, it was shows like Sesame Street that introduced me to a lot of the basics of American life.  This video is still a great one to use with young students who still can’t participate in Election Day.

The best part is when David goes apeshit on Big Bird and Snuffy about voter registration.

Enjoy this classic clip of a great show before it was ruined by Elmo and the big purple dinosaur.

 

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Can iCivics.org make Politics Fun? A Website Review

Who would’ve thought political backstabbing, smear campaigns and pandering to the electorate would be so fun?

Sandra Day O’Connor, the former Supreme Court Justice who gasped at last week’s abysmal results in the 2010 NAEP Civics Report Card, has lately lent her name and expertise to a new venture designed to get young people more interested in government.

With iCivics.org, we may have found at least the beginnings of a winning formula.

Most of us learned about our government through one, or both, of two methods. The first involved a careful reading of our founding documents, followed by meticulous listing of the powers, checks, balances and responsibilities of each part of our government. The second almost always came in the form of “Schoolhouse Rock” episodes covering the aforementioned founding documents in a zippy soundtrack and crude 1970s animation.

The good news is that it gave a student a pretty good foundation of the structure of our government on paper. Unfortunately, it left out a whole bunch of factors that not only make our democracy fun, but also effective.

I’m pretty sure your teacher never mentioned anything about the K Street lobbyists that encircle the chambers of Congress like vultures on carrion.

How about the backroom deals and handshake contracts that often seal a bill’s fate?

Did he/she mention the ideological mambo that is electoral politics? You know, the quick sashay to the right/left in the primary, followed by the mad dash to the center for the general election?

What about the backstabbing and double-dealing within the President’s cabinet—and a First Lady’s often not-so-secret desire to fire them all?

Perhaps he/she mentioned the constant shifting mood of voters, the need to pander to differing constituencies that probably hate each other, the campaign ads designed not on issues but on making your opponent the spawn of Satan, and the life and death struggle of pollsters and their “representative samples”?

Yeah, never learned any of that in school, neither.

iCivics is designed to appeal to those students who have felt distant or left out of the process of governing. Through lessons, media and especially games, students can get a taste of the murky water that is the reality of American politics. The games are the main focus, as they help enforce lessons in the classroom in a fun way, often with a refreshing honesty.

One game I particularly enjoyed is Represent Me!, where you pretend to be a Congressman, selecting and voting on bills to become law. However, don’t think for a minute you can vote on principle and get away with it. In a refreshing sense of reality, there are meters for each of the different constituencies in your district, and you have to pander to enough of them to get re-elected. By the end, you’ve created your own campaign ad and you see if you get another term.

I voted my conscience, and I got booted. That’s pretty freaking real.

Other games include arguing before the Supreme Court, serving as the President for a term, even guiding immigrants through the citizenship process. iCivics has games that cover the whole gambit of political life in this country. Furthermore, as in the Congress game, they pull few punches when it comes to the less-than-noble realities of politics. They never go whole-hog on the real-deal of Washington, but it gives students an important glimpse into a process rarely covered in textbooks.

It would be nice if some of the games went further, into the seedy underbelly of party politics, primaries, lobbyists, budget battles, etc. Wouldn’t it be fun for kids to cut a backroom deal in the cloakroom before an important vote? Or maybe to court opposing PACs and advocacy groups in order to vote for certain laws that may not benefit your voters? Or even to do “opposition research” on your campaign rival—research that’ll show up on the nightly news and next week’s attack ads?

Many educators would be shocked that I would endorse such a frank discussion of our nation’s government. They would prefer to stay to checks and balances and “I’m Just a Bill” and let our students keep believing that our system works exactly the way it should.

In a different setting, this may work. It just doesn’t work with kids who are already knee-deep in the bullshit of government.

One huge assumption that I had to overcome with students is that they have an innate sense of acquiescence to authority. To a middle-class kid like me, the government and the Constitution was as holy as the Vatican. They were both made of marble, both have old people at the helm, and both have complicated rules and consequences. It wasn’t until my older years that the picture-perfect vision of our democracy was clouded by reality.

The populations I serve, as those of many other teachers, are under no such illusions.

Many already have a deep suspicion of law enforcement and government, and for good reason. They come from countries where authoritarian tyranny or criminal lawlessness abounds. They are in contact with government agencies and bureaucracies often on a daily basis, and not always in a positive way (from food stamps to the penitentiary).

They already know the hypocrisy of civic life. It does them no good to re-hash a paper structure that’s an illusion in their mind.

The only real way for students to believe in our system is to confront openly the inconsistencies and hypocrisies that we adults see as almost inherent in the system. iCivics, in an important first step, is attempting to come to grips with these realities, while also extolling those elements that make our system unique, special and effective.

Its important for students to see our system for what it is, even if it isn’t the idealized version we expect from the Founders or Mr. Smith heading to Washington.  To be fair, it probably never was that neat and clean anyway…and that’s the fun part.

Yes, civics and government can be fun. It just needs a healthy dose of reality to make it so.

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Election Day 2010: Quotes on Democracy and Elections

"The County Election" by George Caleb Bingham (1852)

The Neighborhood will be on a brief hiatus as I will be consulting with the Associated Press on elections results from Election Day.  It’ll be a long night, and Mr. D needs his beauty rest.

Yet before I retire, it is important to stress, even if the kids aren’t there tomorrow, the importance of Election Day.  Our representative democracy works on only one principle: the people are the ultimate power.  The only way people can exercise that power fully is by voting for their respective political leaders.

Regardless of your political affiliaton, make sure you get out and vote tomorrow.  Take your time.  Study the candidates and issues.  But most importantly, make a decision.  The engine of government cannot run without our say-so.

To fill the mind and provide discussion, here are various quotes about elections and democracy: some in praise, many in scorn, yet still others with a keen eye on what is necessary for a lasting democratic society.

“The one pervading evil of democracy is the tyranny of the majority, or rather of that party, not always the majority, that succeeds, by force or fraud, in carrying elections.” – Lord Acton

“The 20th century has been characterized by four developments of great importance: the growth of political democracy, the growth of Online Democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting
corporate power against democracy.” – Alex Care

“One does not export democracy in an armored vehicle.” – Jacques Chirac

“All deductions having been made, democracy has done less harm, and more good, than any other form of government. It gave to human existence a zest and camaraderie that outweighed its pitfalls and defects. It gave to thought and science and enterprise the freedom essential to their operation and growth. It broke down the walls of privilege and class, and in each generation it raised up ability from every rank and place.” – Will Durant

“When people put their ballots in the boxes, they are, by that act, inoculated against the feeling that the government is not theirs. They then accept, in some measure, that its errors are their errors, its aberrations their aberrations, that any revolt will be against them. It’s a remarkably shrewd and rather conservative arrangement when one thinks of it.” – John Kenneth Galbraith

“It has been observed that a pure democracy if it were practicable would be the most perfect government.  Experience has proved that no position is more false than this. The ancient democracies in which the people themselves deliberated never possessed one good
feature of government. Their very character was tyranny; their figure deformity.” – Alexander Hamilton

“The democracy will cease to exist when you take away from those who are willing to work and give to those who would not.” – Thomas Jefferson

“Democracy means simply the bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people.” – Oscar Wilde

“Civilization, in fact, grows more and more maudlin and hysterical; especially under democracy it tends to degenerate into a mere combat of crazes; the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” – H.L. Mencken

“I confess I enjoy democracy immensely.  It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.” – H. L. Mencken

“Imagine if all of life were determined by majority rule. Every meal would be a pizza. Every pair of pants, even those in a Brooks Brothers suit, would be stone-washed denim. Celebrity diet and exercise books would be the only thing on the shelves at the library. And —
since women are a majority of the population — we’d all be married to Mel Gibson.” – P.J. O’Rourke

“Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.” – Gore Vidal

“Do you ever get the feeling that the only reason we have elections is to find out if the polls were right?” – Robert Orben

“Elections are won by men and women chiefly because most people vote against somebody rather than for somebody.” – Franklin Adams

“Elections should be held on April 16th-the day after we pay our income taxes. That is one of the few things that might discourage politicians from being big spenders.” – Thomas Sowell

“No part of the education of a politician is more indispensable than the fighting of elections.” – Winston
Churchill

“The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” – Winston Churchill

“It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” – Winston Churchill

“Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who’ll get the blame.” – Bertrand Russell

“You can never have a revolution in order to establish a democracy. You must have a democracy in order to have a revolution.” – G. K. Chesterton

“Education and democracy have the same goal: the fullest possible development of human capabilities.” – Paul Wellstone

“Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word, equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.” – Alexis de Tocqueville

“Let us never forget that government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and senators and congressmen and government officials, but the voters of this country.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

…and the last word goes to the honest one himself.  We need his words now more than ever.

“You may fool all the people some of the time; you may fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all the time.” – Abraham Lincoln

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Primary Document for the Classroom: The Alabama Literacy Test for 1965

citschoolMy friend Deven Black, who has amassed a catalog of history and social studies-related weblinks that could serve as its own doctoral dissertation, sent me a really interesting link from, funny enough, another site, the Social Studies and History Teachers blog.  Both of them are linked here at the Neighborhood.

Prior to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, as well as the ratification of the 24th Amendment to the constitution, eliminating the poll tax, voters often had to climb over difficult hurdles to exercise their constitutional rights.  Until the 1830’s, most voting in the United States had a property restriction–only certain individuals with a certain amount of property could go to the polls.  Since then, the enfranchisement of Americans has extended to all adult citizens aged 18 or older. 

However, this didn’t come easy.

Even with the vote extended to African Americans in 1866, Southern governments made it particularly difficult to cast ballots.  Grandfather clauses, poll taxes, and literacy tests were used to keep “undesirables” from voting–African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, immigrants and poor whites.  Since voting requirements were enforced locally, it sometimes mattered more whether the registrar of voters liked you or not rather than any requirement of law.

The literacy test was among the most grotesque examples of this ham-fisted oppression.  Attached is a copy of an Alabama Literacy Test for 1965, taken from the Social Studies and History Teachers blog.  Several versions of the test were created, and this was one of the harder ones.  You can guess who the Alabama government recommended for the harder version. 

Try giving this test to your students and see if they can pass, therefore qualifying to vote. 

Click here to access the test.  It makes a great civil rights lesson, and also a lesson in the importance of knowing about government in order to participate.

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Iranian elections: Time for the Mullahs to Go?

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The problem with any omnipotent being is that eventually Toto will pull open the curtain.  What lies behind?  Our fallible, feeble selves.

Thus is the problem facing the most controversial pantless men on the planet–and I don’t mean those tribes in the Amazon.  Of course it is the all-powerful clerics that run the Islamic Republic of Iran, a 30 year floorshow that’s part Puritan witch hunt, part swap meet, and all problems for the United States, Israel, and just about any other country wear their leaders wear pants (or not, as in the Gulf emirates).

Yet turbans are getting hotter.  Controversy is sweeping Iran over the recent presidential elections, where hard-line incumbent Mahmoud Ahmedinejad claimed a 68% victory over former prime minister Mir Hossain Mousavi, bucking recent polls showing Mousavi ahead.  Protests–in open defiance of the authorities–continue unabated in cities across the country.  Allegations of election fraud run rampant.  The Guardian Council, the clerics that must approve of the election results, are even okaying the recount of ballots at selected poll sites.

What makes this election more remarkable is that for possibly the first time, the mullahs must publicly pay lip service to popular dissent.  This doesn’t mean there weren’t opposition movements before–the Khatami era of the 1990s comes to mind–yet those were mostly college kids.  Give them free food and a Hacky Sack and all opposition is suppressed.  Today’s opposition is made up of rank-and-file middle class Iranians: the same middle class that was crucial to the 1979 revolution that placed the mullahs in power in the first place. 

Sally Buzbee’s article for the Associated Press highlights some of the scenarios that may happen, especially the fate of the Islamic regime.  While I don’t think the Islamic republic will tumble any time soon, this kind of open defiance, even in the face of government censure, must really put the clerics on edge.

Why, you may ask?  A little history is in order…we are devoted to history at the Neighborhood, after all.

In 1979, a coalition of radical leftists, trade unions, Communists, and Islamic fundamentalists succeeded in overthrowing the Shah, the autocratic, yet pro-Western, monarch of Iran.  The shah, to be fair, was a prick of the worst order.  His Savak, or secret police, committed atrocities that make the Gestapo look like traffic cops.  He squashed all opposition to his rule, while plundering the wealth of the country for his lavish–and tasteless–lifestyle.  It’s the same charge leveled at Saddam: is it some sort of requirement that Middle Eastern autocrats have to decorate their palaces like Tony Montana’s country home in Boca Raton?

Anyway, the coalition managed to get rid of the Shah.  Great, now what?  The Communists and trade unions didn’t have much of an answer, especially since their comrades up in Moscow were kind of busy in a little burg called Afghanistan.  The clerics, unfortunately, did–a return to normalcy and stability.  It’s ideas most people weary of turmoil and unrest would find refreshing and comforting.  The rural poor yearned for a return to the rhythms of their daily lives, while urban voters in Tehran and elsewhere just wanted to go back to work.

What no one told the people was that normalcy and stability meant to the year 1300 under a strict–and not entirely accurate–interpretation of Islamic law.  The fundamentalists gain power in a national referendum with an overwhelming majority based on their stability message.  The Communists and trade unions were sidelined and persecuted, regardless of their role in the revolution.  It’s probably one of the few times I feel bad for Communists, but they deserve sympathy.  They’re usually the ones that throw coalition partners under a bus, so it hardly seems fair.   

Thus is established the Islamic “Republic” of Iran–a democracy in theory, a republic in form and function, but a theocracy in reality.  Even though there are elections, elected officials and a parliamentary process for legislation, the clerics have all real power.  They approve the candidates, set the agenda, approve the laws, okay election results and basically use the elected legislature as a puppet for their program–a country under Islamic law.

The mullahs keep strict control over almost all aspects of everyday life.  Most Western products, media and ideas are banned.  Islamic dress codes and social morays are tightly watched.  Women, religious minorities, atheists, dissenters and non-heterosexuals have none of the freedoms we enjoy. Religious police and paramilitary thugs maintain a terroristic iron fist over Iranian life.  Public floggings are commonplace.  Capital punishment is used often, especially stoning for women.

Thirty years have passed, and Iran has seen a lot.  It has been through international isolation led by the United States.  It suffered a nearly-decade long war with Iraq.  It has been instrumental in Islamic uprisings in Lebanon, Syria, the Gulf States, Egypt, and in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank.  Yet it has rarely seen a crisis like the one unfolding now.

In many respects, the clerics should have seen this coming.  While they sat on their omnipotent thrones over their utopian Islamic state, Iranians have connected to the world via technology–in spite of official censorship.  After years of sham elections, Iranians have longed for a transparency that was impossible in a place where the clergy ruled by fiat.  Even without the loudmouth Ahmedinejad, the people would have eventually reacted to a ruling class that has gotten too remote from the realities of everyday life. 

There is also demographics to consider: Iran is getting younger and younger.  Most Iranians between 21-40 have little, if any, primary knowledge of the Islamic Revolution.  They have no concept of the “bad old days” of the Shah.  They’re probably not listening to you if you tried to tell them–those earbuds on that IPod really blot out that sound, don’t they?  Stability and normalcy are their everyday life, and they are also aware of the rest.  That “rest” is the corruption of the elites, the sham elections, and the lack of real progress in the Islamic Republic.

I think that after the protests and anger subsides,  Ahmedinejad will stay in power but under a tight leash.  The clerics will have no choice.  Suppressing any dissent in the age of viral video and streaming media mean that the world will be watching.  On the other hand, they have to save some sort of face, since Ahmedinejad was considered their guy.  To preserve the power of the clerics, they must be pro-active and either remove or harness Ahmedinejad until the Guardian Council can plan their next move.

What the mullahs don’t want is the logical next step.  When the ire of the people moves from the puppets of the clerics to the clerics themselves–and it will happen, eventually–the clerics had better invest in slacks.

And start running for their lives.

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