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Justin Stapley: Voting should be the culmination of civic engagement

A woefully uninformed electorate means just more voting won’t be enough.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Voters at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on election day, Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020.

In a typical year, only slightly more than half of the voting-age population casts a ballot.

This unfortunate figure has led to both partisan and nonpartisan efforts to “turn out the vote.” I remember in 2008, as a young LDS missionary in Cleveland, watching the buses come pouring into low-income areas on early voting days. I would bump into door-to-door “get out the vote” canvasing as I walked the neighborhoods myself. Every other billboard on the roads and highways was a reminder of the importance of voting.

To be sure, voting is an essential exercise of political power. Wisdom suggests a right we don’t exercise today is a right we might not have tomorrow. However, I have often wondered if the intense efforts I witnessed in Ohio, while important, are ultimately just a treatment for the symptoms of a much deeper problem. And that, possibly, such efforts might be compounding that problem.

We’ve all seen the polls that suggest a woefully uninformed electorate. Typical American citizens are not only often oblivious to the nuances of the political issues we face but also fail to grasp the basic workings of our constitutional republic. Since the 1950s, the teaching of civics, law, political philosophy and American history in high school has largely atrophied.

As if this were not enough of a glaring problem, our age of social media has demonstrated a dramatic inability to engage in calm, reasoned and civil political debate. We have also seen a strong tendency to believe fake news, misinformation and propaganda, and even react with hostility towards level-minded discourse and reporting.

Given that such an electorate is woefully uninformed, uneducated and easily influenced by disinformation, it is doubtful that higher voter participation would have the impact many assume. In fact, if such proposals as compulsory voting or an online ballot system were adopted, the state of our political dysfunction could likely get far worse.

Instead of only focusing on a single, narrow political exercise, we should be doing what we can to create and cultivate a culture of complete civic engagement. Not only should we advocate for better and more extensive school instruction on these crucial subjects, they should be dinner table conversations.

We should ask our children basic questions, challenge them to think through political issues, and teach them to articulate their thoughts effectively. We should be challenging ourselves to engage with our friends and neighbors in respectful dialogue about the difficult topics of politics and government.

We must reacquire the broader perspective that, while failing to vote is a failure to exercise an important right, failing to vote as an informed and engaged citizen is a more significant failing of the critical civic duties of responsible citizenship.

The problem ultimately facing our nation is the absence of civic virtue and thoughtful engagement. By redirecting our efforts towards these underlying problems, the issue of voter participation will likely solve itself.

Justin Stapley

Justin Stapley is a political science student at Utah Valley University with focuses in political theory and constitutional studies. Before returning to school to finish his degree, he served four years as a deputy sheriff in Salt Lake County. He currently lives in Bluffdale with his wife of 10 years, his two daughters and his newborn son.

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