In Election! A Kid’s Guide to Picking Our President, Dan Gutman uses easy-to-understand language that’s perfect for kids (and any adults who may have forgotten the finer points of our voting system, or how the electoral college works).
Below, we’ve included an excerpt from a chapter of the book that’s extremely relevant right now: voting.
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Why is voting important?
In a nation of more than 300 million people, it may seem like voting really isn’t that important. With so many other people out there voting, what difference could one vote for or against a candidate mean?
In fact, it could make a lot of difference. Consider this: In the 1882 election to the Virginia House of Representatives, this is the way the voting turned out:
Robert Mayo: 10,505
George Garrison: 10,504
If just one voter had cast a ballot for Garrison instead of Mayo, Garrison and Mayo would have tied, and the election would have had to happen all over again. And that wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime event. Four times in American history, federal elections were decided by a single vote.
Also consider this: One vote saved President Andrew Johnson from being removed from office in 1868. One vote gave Adolf Hitler the leadership of Germany’s Nazi Party in 1923.
Each vote counts. In some other countries, citizens cannot vote or have a say in the way their government is run. Millions of people come to America for the simple reason that we have the right to vote. That right should not be taken for granted.
By voting, we can change laws we disagree with. We can “fire” leaders who we feel are not doing a good job. Our democracy only reflects what Americans want if Americans vote.
When can I vote for President?
The day you turn eighteen years old, you become a legal adult. Then you will be old enough to vote in any election.
THE CONSTITUTION (Amendment XXVI, Section 1):
“The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”
Are there any grown-ups who aren’t allowed to vote?
Yes. People who are not American citizens cannot vote. Neither can citizens who aren’t registered, temporary visitors, convicted criminals, or the insane. Also, each state has its own residency requirement. You have to live in your state for a minimum amount of time before you can vote there.
But we’re talking about very small numbers of people here. Almost all Americans have the right to vote.
Has it always been that way?
No. When America was in its infancy, very few people were allowed to vote. Different states had different requirements, but in general:
Before 1825, people who didn’t own land could not vote.
Before 1870, African Americans could not vote.
Before 1920, women could not vote. (Spain gave women the vote in 1931. Italy and France waited until after World War II. Women in Switzerland couldn’t vote until 1971.)
Before 1924, Native Americans could not vote.
Before 1964, people who lived in Washington, D.C., could not vote (for president).
Before 1971, eighteen- to twenty-year-olds could not vote. (During the Vietnam War, many Americans felt it wasn’t fair that teenagers could be drafted to fight and die for their country while they were not allowed to vote. The Twenty-sixth Amendment lowered the voting age to eighteen.)
Even after these various groups were given the right to vote, in many cases the system made it difficult for them. They had to pass literacy tests, learn to speak English, or travel long distances. It took several Voting Rights Acts of the 1960s and 1970s to eliminate the barriers to fair registration and voting for all.
In 1993, Congress passed what came to be called the “motor-voter” bill: Citizens can register to vote when they apply for a driver’s license.
Do you have to vote for your political party’s candidate if you don’t like that person?
No. Lots of Democrats will vote for the Republican candidate, and lots of Republicans will vote for the Democratic candidate. This is called “crossing party lines,” and there’s nothing wrong with it.
Each political party can count on a certain number of its members (“faithfuls”) to vote for that party no matter who their candidate is. But a very large number of Americans, possibly as high as one-third, don’t make their decision until just before Election Day. These “undecideds” are very important. The candidate who can convince them to give him their vote is very often the one who will win the election.
If I was eligible to vote, could I vote for my teacher instead of the candidates?
Yes. At the polling place, they have what are called “irregular ballots” for people who wish to write in the name of someone who is not on the ballot. There are always a few jokers who write in names like “Mickey Mouse” as a protest against the election process. But almost all voters vote for one of the candidates who is running.
Can you vote if you’re out of town on Election Day?
Yes. Some people can’t make it to the polls. This would include people who are in the hospital or disabled, people on vacation, college students living away from home, people in the military, and people on business trips.
In those cases, citizens can vote if they get an “absentee ballot.” It’s simply a form that is filled out and must be mailed to the local board of elections in advance of Election Day so it can be counted.
Does everybody vote who is registered to vote?
Sadly, no. In the 1960 presidential election, less than 63 percent of all the registered voters actually voted. If you think that’s low, in the 1996 presidential election, only 49 percent voted. For the first time in American history, less than half the registered voters made the effort to vote.
Some groups tend to vote more than others. Wealthy people vote more than poor people do. Educated people vote more than uneducated people do. Older people vote more than younger people do. The lowest voter “turnout” is among the eighteen- to twenty-one-year-olds.
In other democracies such as Japan, Italy, and Australia, voter turnout is much higher than it is in the United States. But then, in Australia, citizens who don’t vote are actually fined.
Why would anyone not vote?
There are a lot of reasons. Some people simply have a hard time getting to the polls. (See above: Can you vote if you’re out of town on Election Day?) Others are simply too lazy, or the opposite—too busy to take time from their job.
Some people are satisfied with the way things are going and don’t see any need to vote for a change. Some are completely disinterested and just figure that people who care more than they do will make good decisions for the country. Still others say they haven’t paid close attention to the issues, so they don’t feel they can make an informed choice among the candidates.
Finally, some people complain that they don’t like any of the candidates, or they are so disillusioned with politics that they feel it wouldn’t matter which candidates were running the country, anyway.
And sometimes it rains on Election Day and people don’t want to go outside.
There are lots of reasons people give not to vote, but there aren’t any good reasons. Everybody who is eligible to vote should vote. Democracy shouldn’t be taken for granted.
(See the beginning of this chapter: Why is voting important?)
How do people decide which candidate to vote for?
Each voter has his or her own reason for voting for a particular candidate. Voters examine the candidate’s record of what they’ve accomplished; decide if the candidate shares their values; determine if the candidate is smart, honest, and a good leader. A voter will look over the issues (foreign policy, domestic policy, taxes, the environment, and so on) to see where the candidates “stand” on each one.
Some people vote for whomever their political party nominates, figuring that if they agree with the party’s positions, so will the party’s candidate. Other people have one particular issue that is important to them, and whichever candidate shares their opinion on that issue will get their vote. Still others vote “with their pocketbooks.” In other words, if the economy is good, the political party that is currently in the majority (in Congress) will get their vote. If the news is bad, many voters will pull the lever for the minority party in hopes that they might run things differently.
A few factors that voters should not use to determine where to cast their vote are the candidate’s skin color, gender, physical appearance, or what their spouse looks like. The fact that one candidate has cooler posters or bumper stickers should not affect anyone’s choice.
Remember, the election is not a popularity contest. We are trying to choose the best person to lead the country for the next four years.