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The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
News / Opinion / Editorials

In Our View: Civics Lesson Sorely Needed

With general election looming, it\u2019s important to cast an informed vote

The Columbian
Published: September 27, 2014, 5:00pm

As election season draws near, the time has come for Clark County residents to brush up on their civics.

In this regard, those of us here in Southwest Washington are not alone; many Americans are due for a refresher course in how our government works. According to a recent national survey by The Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, only 36 percent of American adults can name the three branches of government. While that might seem embarrassing, the fact that only 35 percent can name even one branch of government is downright shameful.

“Although surveys reflect disapproval of the way Congress, the President, and the Supreme Court are conducting their affairs, the Annenberg survey demonstrates that many know surprisingly little about these branches of government,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

For the record, the branches — at both the national and the state levels — are the executive, the legislative and the judicial, and they are designed to provide a separation of powers within the government. We’re guessing that you knew that, because if you are reading the newspaper, you clearly are well-educated and well-informed.

Yet, we digress. You see, the real issue is that the Nov. 4 general election will be here before we know it. Ballots are scheduled to become available Oct. 15, and The Columbian soon will begin publishing editorial recommendations designed to assist voters in making their decisions. The paper’s Editorial Board will provide insight on the race for representative from Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, on local contests for the state legislature, on various county positions and on myriad statewide ballot measures.

Of course, such recommendations sometimes amount to so much shouting at the clouds. Americans have demonstrated an increasing apathy toward politics and elections, with many choosing to ignore the fact that the people we elect make decisions that impact our daily lives.

To use one example, some Republican state senators from Southwest Washington played key roles last year in the demise of the Columbia River Crossing project to replace the Interstate 5 Bridge. We aren’t passing judgment on whether that was good or bad for the people of Clark County; we’re merely using it to point out that elections have real consequences. In spite of that, only 29 percent of registered voters in the county cast ballots in the recent August primary. And only 68 percent of registered voters cast ballots in the 2010 general election, which, like this November’s contest, was a midterm election.

Elections provide an opportunity for voters to re-engage with our political system and to make their voices heard. And with disinterest being common throughout most of the country, many pundits have called for an increased emphasis in civics education. In this state, students are required to take one semester of civics, as that discipline has been surpassed by math, technology and reading on the priority list. On the other hand, it should not require more than one semester for students to learn the basics — such as the three branches of government. (Speaking of civics, here’s an interesting aside: Contrary to popular belief, students do, indeed, recite the Pledge of Allegiance at the beginning of the school day.)

So, as election season draws near, consider this a reminder that voting is important. But informed voting is even more important.