I once had a college professor who told the class, “If you haven’t done your homework, get out of my classroom.” The idea was that unprepared students hindered the ability of prepared students to make academic progress.
The Constitution establishes the right of citizens to vote with no educational requirements. With a few exceptions, such as restrictions on convicted felons in some states, you get to vote even if you cannot name your congressperson, identify the three branches of government, or even recite at least three rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.
Democracy demands that we respect that provision in the Constitution, but we are forgiven if recent elections prompt us to wonder if it’s still a good idea. Thomas Jefferson is credited with saying, “An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.” He was suggesting that democracy doesn’t work if citizens don’t get educated on issues and candidates before exercising their right to vote.
Dare I say it, many of us could do a much better job of preparing to vote. I will also say that if more voters “got educated” before voting, election outcomes would change.
I am firmly against any new requirements or restrictions on voting. The risk of a modern form of a literacy test being used to disenfranchise one group of voters or another is too great. We are better off not opening that Pandora’s Box.
But that should not stop us from encouraging everyone to use their vote wisely. Right now, the country is a divided mess with upcoming elections threatening to send election deniers and unqualified candidates into office. Think about Dan Cox, the Republican candidate for governor, Hershel Walker, a semi-literate candidate for Senate in Georgia, and, of course, our own Andy Harris, who was at the infamous December 19, 2020, White House meeting that helped set the stage for the January 6 insurrection.
We need voters who are better informed, and I do not just mean Republicans. We need voters better able to sift through campaign lies and who understand enough about the issues to make better decisions. Deciding for whom to vote should be based on more than celebrity endorsements or clever campaign ads. Voters also need more information about the character of candidates running.
I would like to see more in-depth candidate interviews. The recent Avalon Foundation-Spy Talbot County Council Community Town Hall is a good example of an event that not only was educational in its discussion of issues, but also provided an opportunity for candidates to demonstrate civility, knowledge of the County and its challenges, and their ability to communicate with voters.
I would also like to see more objective scrutiny of candidates. This means candidate endorsements by newspapers and organizations. One recent example in Talbot County is the “Reset Lakeside” campaign that has identified candidates who want to stop Lakeside development because sewer issues were not properly resolved. A non-profit group of community members identified candidates—Democrats and Republicans—who are committed to “vote right” on the issue. That is helpful.
Educated voters, whom I will call “well-qualified voters,” are those who seek information on candidates, follow the news sufficiently to make informed assessments as to what our problems and challenges are, and know how to spot lies when they are told. Well-qualified voters also talk to their friends and neighbors to exchange information, encourage everyone to vote, and call out nonsense when they see it.
Election day is almost here. The future of the country may depend on whether people vote and how those votes are cast. Thomas Jefferson wanted us all to be well-qualified voters. I aspire to be one. I hope you do too.
J.E. Dean is a retired attorney and public affairs consultant writing on politics, government, and other subjects.