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Archive for the ‘Electoral Politics’ Category

On a work trip to Estonia in the mid 1990s, I had the memorable pleasure of visiting a rural high school.   To this day I remember the bumpy van ride from downtown Tallin, am enchanting Old World city, through a somewhat depressing landscape of bombed out and abandoned buildings along rather poorly maintained roads.  After an hour of being jostled around, our small group arrived at a rundown schoolhouse that no US parent would send their child to without serious fear for their safety.

However, when we entered the classroom, we were amazed and delighted to see students eagerly at work on brand new personal computers, manipulating complex geographical information system  (GIS) programs requiring technical and educational aptitude far beyond what I expected most kids that age to possess.  The message of our host from the federal education agency was immediately made clear –Estonia was investing in children, not buildings and roads.  The country had made a commitment to make the internet accessible to every child by the year 1998.  I have little doubt they accomplished their goal.

Nearly a decade later, it was within this memory context that I read a column in European Voiceby a member of the Estonian Parliament, Otti Lumi.  Apparently Estonia, like much of Europe, is facing a troubling decline in birth rates.  A driving trend is women delaying childrearing until later in life to pursue careers and, as a result, having less children.  The government has instituted a series of policies to encourage couples to procreate early and often.  For example, education loans are greatly decreased for students who start a family soon after graduation.    

As a public affairs practioner with a special interest in social marketing, I was particularly interested in the author’s proposal to incentivize childbirth through increased political privileges.  Simply put, Lumi asks, “What if parents had one extra vote per child.”  He notes that parents represent their children in legal terms already.  Giving children the right to vote – through their parents – would demonstrate the value the state places on its youth, the future leaders of the nation.

I’ve mulled this idea over and decided I like it, though for another objective than the author.  Too many Americans wave off their own right to vote, or do so without taking proper care in thinking through the impact of their decision. But if we had an additional vote to cast on behalf of another, particularly a child, I do believe that I – and others – might approach the act of voting with a little more gravitas!

Certainly politicians do their best to play up to adult concerns about future generations with rhetoric such as “don’t mortgage our children’s future by continuing to build an enormous federal deficit.”  But a campaign that literally gave you the right to vote on behalf of your child might get people to think and act on Election Day just a tad bit more conscientiously.  In the old-fashioned American tradition, it’s at least worth a poll to find out. 

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My master’s degree thesis at Johns Hopkins evaluated civic journalism and its impact on actual voter participation.  (Or at least I think it did! I wrote in the mid 90s in an era before we saved everything on discs and I haven’t seen a hard copy since my last move.)  My interest in civic participation was  again sparked by an article in the October 14th edition of European Voice, a weekly magazine published in Brussels.  (To give credit where its due, the byline belongs to  Simon Taylor with the Economist. ) The story described an event in which a German insurance company and the European Commission brought together a group of 362 citizens for 2 ½  days.  The group was given a deep dive on several hot topics facing the coalition government and then given a chance to debate and vote on several hot topics. Attitudes were benchmarked before and after the workshop. (By the way, this is a great idea for a corporation wishing to increase visibility in the EU.)

In summary, significant shifts in opinion were recorded.  For example, on economic and social policy, those polled were more prepared to consider sacrifices such as raising the retirement age after participating in the event. Support for allowing additional countries to join the EU (specifically Turkey and Ukraine) fell by double digits. The sentiment seemed to be that the more players in the room, the less likely the EU could ever get consensus. 

The actual opinions don’t interest me as much as the process and the outcome.  How delightful it would be if every American were required to spend even ½ day learning about a major issue distinguishing US president candidates before the election. They could even pick the issue that mattered most to them!  One could argue that this education takes place through the campaign and resulting media coverage process. But I’d be more comfortable having a  less subjective third party lead the learning and debate exercise, such as a university.

My former boss US Senator Bob Graham has joined others in an effort to reenergize American civic life. I also follow closely the work of Public Agenda, a non-profit with a similar goal of educating and stimulating the citizenry.  To this day I can picture a picture I believe taken by Washington Post photographer Carol Guzy of South Africans who walked not miles but days to enjoy the privilege of voting after the fall of apartheid. 

I hope we Americans will honor our democratic form of government in November 2008 by taking just a moment to “get out the vote”…and do so intelligently. 

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