By Chris Winters, Vt. Deputy Secretary of State
It is important we all understand the strengths of American democracy, as well as its weaknesses. If we are to work together as a nation to address the limits of “the great experiment,” and ensure our government is truly created of, by and for the people, having equitable access to civics education is a crucial starting point.
As Vermonters, we are fortunate to have a state government that believes voting is a right, not a privilege. One that takes seriously the Constitutional command to carefully protect the right to vote, the right from which all other rights flow.
Online voter registration, same day registration, early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, automatic voter registration and now universally mailed ballots are all initiatives expanding registration numbers and access to the ballot box.
As Deputy Secretary of State, I’m proud of the efforts our office has made to ensure every eligible voter is able to cast a vote. Vermont has one of the highest voter registration rates in the country and our participation rates are generally top 10, but with so many registered voters, why aren’t we doing better at getting a higher percentage of Vermonters to the ballot box?
Lately I have been considering this question alongside another crisis we are facing: a declining public trust in our government and institutions.
Surveys are showing that across the country, people are losing faith in our government. Many are also losing faith in our courts, our institutions, our elections — and sometimes, it seems, in the very ideas upon which America was founded.
It’s not a great feeling to work so hard to serve the state you love, only to find that public confidence in the work you do is slipping away. We believe in transparency and we aren’t afraid of hard questions based in genuine concern, truth and evidence, but to those who aren’t involved regularly or familiar with the functions of our government, it’s easy to become cynical. What can we do to restore the public’s trust in the ideals of American democracy?
I believe these issues are related and can both be addressed by investing in the civic education of the next generation of voters.
Knowledge about government doesn’t come naturally; it is earned and learned. Unfortunately, in the era of No Child Left Behind, we have seen the subject disappear from school curriculums with the shift toward teaching subjects on the standardized tests, of which civics is not one.
It is important we all understand the strengths of American democracy, as well as its weaknesses. If we are to work together as a nation to address the limits of ‘the great experiment,’ and ensure our government is truly created of, by and for the people, having equitable access to civics education is a crucial starting point. Without a basic understanding of our founding documents and the layers of federal, state and local government, it’s nearly impossible to have the hard conversations we need to have to rebuild that trust.
We are living in the most politically and socially divisive times I have ever experienced. There too, civics can help. It is imperative that we teach civility and humility, dissent and debate, and instill the ability to problem-solve with our neighbors without labeling them as enemies.
Through civics, we can gain an appreciation for free speech, assembly, and protest, but just as important we learn about civil discourse, debate, compromise, and how to engage with others who may not agree with you.
A civics education can provide the tools we need to control the worst in human nature. We must learn and understand our rights, authorities and our power, or they will be taken away from us. It’s a skill we all need to develop, and one we need to use regularly to prevent losing it.
Our goal should not just be 100% voter participation (though we will continue to strive for it). Civics is not just solely about voting and Election Day. It’s about being an engaged Vermonter driven to not only to vote but to volunteer, go to public meetings, run for office, and serve in other ways as an active member of the community.
That is why the Secretary of State’s Office is committed to reviving its civics education programs and resources. We will leverage our knowledge of elections and the wonderful history of our Vermont State Archives to produce materials for teachers to use and for all to enjoy.
We have started the process of convening stakeholders to assist us in this critical mission, and welcome both your input and participation. We are seeking funding and additional partners so if you have interest or an idea, please reach out.
While the challenges facing our democracy right now loom large, by investing in Vermont’s civic future we can ensure the next generation of voters have the tools needed to restore faith in democracy and ensure we are truly living up to our democratic ideals.
Chris Winters is the Vermont Deputy Secretary of State, serving under Secretary of State Jim Condos. He has served in the Secretary of State’s office since 1997. Winters grew up in Williamstown and now lives in Berlin, where he has been a School Board member and Little League baseball coach.