Teacher Talk: Voting is free, simple and a responsibility

The urge to have power over one's affairs of state remains a powerful force in the world

Posted: Friday, October 03, 2003

Each day in my high school American and World History classes, the student leader reads an item from the newspaper column "Today in History." As it happened, today, Sept. 29, is the day in 1789 when the United States established its first regular army. "Yeah, so what?" you might say. A standing army is something we Americans have been able to take for granted for the last 214 years. But, as I challenged my students, can you imagine fighting the toughest military power in the world with a bunch of rag-tag enlisted volunteers from far-flung communities who, despite their leader's entreaties to the Congress, were perpetually underfed, underclothed, underhoused and underpaid? And why did these citizen soldiers make this consecrated sacrifice? To have the right to choose their own decision-makers - a right abandoned by more than half of Juneau's eligible voters in nearly every municipal election.

On Oct. 7, the more than 24,000 people who have registered to vote in our community are eligible to choose our next mayor, two assembly members and five school board members, and to decide whether local tobacco taxes should be doubled and whether two schools should be repaired. Seventeen intrepid citizens, ranging in age from near 20 to near 70, two-thirds of whom have never held elective office, have offered to give up their time and energy to help run this community on the behalf of its citizens. How many voters will make that 10-minute stop at their precinct polling place to participate in this system so dearly won? Maybe one in three - and that's if the turnout is decent.

Of course, the notion of citizens choosing their decision-makers is not new (maybe that's why folks who have this privilege tend to ignore it). Philosophers and activists from Artistotle to Rousseau to Cady Stanton to Mandela have exemplified this radical concept for more than a couple thousand years. Yet, the urge to have power over one's affairs of state remains powerful today and citizen soldiers still are willing to die to secure that right, whether it's in Chechyna or Myanmar.

Last week, I took my juniors to the Capitol to visit with Juneau's freshman representative in the Alaska House, Bruce Weyrauch, who has served for one year. He told them that Juneau perennially produces quality candidates - and he's right. Despite the miniature size of our metropolis and regardless of one's political stripe, there is a plenitude of quality candidates from whom to choose. (The operative word here is "choose.")

I am hoping that my students, through their study of this local exercise in democracy, will appreciate the vitality of voting and become life-long ballot addicts, as have I. Will they, instead, come away from this exposure with the recollection that fewer than half of those eligible to choose our leaders cared enough to do so?

And don't kid yourself. The near-term issues in this town are, indeed, critical. Our city this year lost a considerable chunk of revenue when the governor axed municipal assistance. Our school system knows already that it must cut nearly 10 percent next year if additional state funding is not forthcoming. In a budget comprised primarily of human costs, that necessarily means cutting teachers - perhaps dozens - and raising class sizes, setting our district on a collision course with the unfunded federal mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act, to say nothing of needing supplemental resources to help struggling students pass the now-required high school graduation exam. The impacts of opening a valley high school, designing a second crossing, implementing waterfront development, maintaining the capital and, potentially, planning a road up the east side of Lynn Canal will be substantial and beg for thoughtful management. All of these issues likely will come to a head in the next term of those officials who soon will take the oath of public office, thanks to a margin of a few hundred - or maybe just a few - votes.

Voting is free; voting is simple. At once a privilege and a right, it's also, I would argue, a responsibility. As I tell my students, whether we want to be or not, adults are role models for kids. Be a role model. Be a patriot. Go vote.

• Laury Scandling has taught history at the University of Alaska Southeast and in the Juneau School District for 10 years. She teaches at Juneau-Douglas High School.

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