Civics class at the polling place: Basic stuff that some voters don’t know

As an official poll worker on November 6, my job was to help people vote. We looked at IDs, confirmed voters’ addresses, handed out paper ballots and did all the nuts-and-bolts stuff of election day. Nearly 1,000 voters showed up. Most of what happened was routine and smooth–a tribute to the successful checks and balances in place in our county. But there were a few surprises that revealed some glaring gaps in voters’ knowledge about our election system. And these incidents make me realize that civics classes really need to be re-instituted in American schools–and possibly via a nationwide ad campaign aimed at adults. Here are some of the incidents–from just one polling place–that make me worry about the state of civics education in our schools and in our society.

Where do I sign?

During a stint at the optical scanner while the assistant supervisor was on a 30-minute break, I collected “voting tickets,” directed voters to voting booths and helped them feed their completed ballots into the scanner. During that half-hour period, three voters asked me, “Where do I sign this ballot?”  I explained that there is no signature line on the ballot, because we have a secret ballot in America. We don’t match up people’s names with their actual ballots. Apparently, they didn’t know that basic tenet of democracy.

I’m afraid…

Upon receiving their paper ballots, several voters asked, “I don’t know much about the judges.” [In Missouri, we vote on whether to retain judges, not to elect them.] ” If I don’t vote on them, will my ballot count, or will it be thrown out?”  We reminded each of these voters that we don’t have compulsory voting in this country. You don’t even have to vote, let alone vote on everything on the ballot. So, yes, your ballot will be valid even if you don’t vote on every race, issue or judge.

Upon further reflection, I have a theory about where this concern comes from: school. Kids in school are bombarded with standardized tests, many of which penalize them for unanswered questions. The paper ballot in my state–replete with little S.A.T.-style bubbles to fill in–looks a lot like a standardized-test answer sheet. Maybe there’s an unconscious, perceptual spillover from tests to ballots. Even if that’s a crackpot idea, it’s still worrisome to see voters who don’t understand the basics of optional voting.

Which is who, and how?

Several voters wondered how they’d know who to vote for. One asked, “Does the ballot say which candidate belongs to which party?” Another wanted to know what a Democrat is, and what a Republican is, and she asked us how to decide between them. Of course, as poll workers, we’re prohibited from giving advice on who to vote for. It’s tempting, of course, but we didn’t. But it’s somewhat shocking to encounter people who have taken the time to come to the polls, but who don’t know what a political party actually is.

You want me to vote on what?

This year’s Missouri ballot included a bunch of ballot initiatives that, it became clear as I observed the body language of voters standing behind the silver privacy booths, a lot of people had never heard of prior to election day. Should the St. Louis City Police Department be under the jurisdiction of the city, rather than the State of Missouri? Should Missourians have to vote on the creation of health-exchanges under Obamacare before they can be implemented? [The language on the ballot was not as straightforward as my framing of those two questions, by the way.] Judging from how long it took many voters to fill in the bubbles next to those propositions–if they ever did–I surmised that many were reading them for the first time–and reading them multiple times–and then saying to themselves, “What the hell is this,” and then, “I dunno.”

Obviously, we don’t do a very good job of informing voters about what’s on the ballot–or motivating them to find out on their own. When pundits and pollsters talk about “low-information voters,” they may be unfairly blaming the victims of the testing-industrial complex [sometimes known as schools] to emphasize learning about the basics of our political system–and the failure of our society to encourage students– who later become voters– to think critically.