Civics and Elections: Saving Our Democracy Begins with Young Voters

In Athens of antiquity, the inventors of democracy set up a law that required every person to vote. Anyone found not voting would be publicly marked and labeled an idiot; someone who thought their own personal needs trumped those of the society around them, wrote Isaac DeVille.

I begin here by asserting that the one certain measure of any democratic society is the measurement of those who vote and those who don’t.

That said, looking at the general elections in San Diego and California last year, one finds 2,135,863 eligible voters in San Diego County. Of that number, 1,545,924 were registered to vote. In 2014, only 692,434 voted, which means 853,490 registered voters did not vote; or, 1,443,429 eligible voters didn’t even bother registering.

In last year’s mayoral election, 290,192 San Diegans voted; 377,176 did not.

In Tuesday’s city council elections in Los Angles, the LA Times reports fewer than 10 percent of the city’s registered voters voted!

In California, there were 24,288,154 eligible voters; 17,803,823 were registered. In last year’s elections, 2,966,267 voted, meaning 14,837,565 who could have voted, didn’t; or, 21,321,887 of those eligible to vote.

In the presidential elections of 2000, 2004, 2008, and 2012, 481,095,000 Americans of eligible voting age did not vote (source: U.S. Census Bureau).

Is there anyone reading these numbers — these appalling numbers — who believes the United States of America is a model of democracy? Anyone? Anyone wishing to defend our fellow citizens’ right not to vote?

The words of Pericles to the Athenians, “We do not imitate, but are a model to others,” can no longer be invoked about America, as President Kennedy once did, without shame.

To say I find such non-voting statistics stunning would be a vast understatement — and understatement is not my thing (it’s been suggested).

So what do we do?

I don’t know what you will do, but I know what The City Club is already doing, and has for many years. We involve high school students in every event we hold. We do this because too many young people today have little experience in civic life or understanding of its meaning. (By the way, every service club in America should, once a month, have student guests at their luncheons.)

Recently, Richard Dreyfuss, the Academy Award-winning actor (The Goodbye Girl), came to The City Club on a Saturday morning at La Jolla Country Day School; he came to speak on the consuming passion of his life: the teaching of civics in public schools.

Mr. Dreyfuss, greeted by a standing room only audience, spoke and took questions for over an hour, and then stayed for another hour talking to people about his “passion.”

Impressive? I would say, but he is not alone in his campaign to restore the teaching of civics in America’s classrooms.

Ira Lechner and his wife, Eileen Haag (prominent San Diegans), started Inspire U.S., a nonprofit organization committed to: Leadership/Community/Democracy.

Their goal: 85 percent of American high school students who will pledge to register and vote!

The words of Pericles to the Athenians, 'We do not imitate, but are a model to others,' can no longer be invoked about America.
George Mitrovich
Mr. Lechner and Ms. Haag believe the critical time for this is now, pointing out that by 2020, 17 million Americans will have graduated from high school, and between now and then will have a chance to play a vital role in the 2020 national election.

Inspire U.S. has scored some significant breakthroughs.

In West Virginia, whose U.S. Senator Jennings Randolph led the fight to get the voting age lowered from 21 to 18, Inspire student teams are working to get 100 percent of their classmates to “pledge to reg” and “pledge to vote” – and by the end of last November, three of the state’s high schools achieved 95 percent of their goal.

In Arizona, another Inspire target state, Ellie Dries, a high school student leader, on National Voter Registration Day, signed up 54 of her classmates pledging to vote.

In Kentucky, Inspire has seen 24 high schools supporting 100 percent student registration (does Mitch McConnell know this?).

Closer to home, two remarkable Del Norte High School seniors, Justin Shin and Sam Haber, started Youth Political Awareness (YPA), their own political action committee.

Their goal, as with Mr. Lechner, Ms. Haag, and Mr. Dreyfuss: get students involved.

Jonathan Shulman, who teaches History at La Jolla Country Day School, and is the reason for The City Club/Country Day partnership, introduced me to Justin and Sam over dinner recently at The Haven in Kensington.

Oh my, how terrific are these young men, and how admirable their goal, which is nothing less than involving students in saving America and insuring our future, as noted above, by the only plausible certainty in a democracy — voting.

It’s a little footnote, but at the last Get Out The Vote luncheon held in San Diego, a large affair at the old Royal Inn across from the harbor, I was one of two speakers.

The other: Pete Wilson, former mayor of San Diego. Pete Wilson left the mayor’s office in 1983.

In the ensuing 32 years, I am not aware of any similar event in this town, this county, or this state.

There are two basic reasons for this: politicians and political consultants.

Nothing terrifies consultants more than having thousands of previously unregistered voters registering.

Consultants know their voters, they know their names, and they know their voting habits. A sudden surge in voter registration plays havoc with their research. It takes consultants out of their comfort zone – and it might threatened their livelihoods.

If it were within my powers to mandate by law that every citizen 18 and over register and vote, as in Australia and Switzerland, I would not hesitate to invoke that power.

I would do so knowing when you reach a critical mass where people neither register nor vote, you lose your democracy.

We are near that critical mass.