Looking Inward: Noteworthy and Voteworthy

Emily Russell/ Sun Star Columnist

Mar. 4, 2014

 

If you ask my roommates, they will tell you that I’m constantly listening to the news. I wake up, turn my phone on, open the National Public Radio app and play the news through my headphones all throughout my morning routine. I boil tea while I hear updates on the revolution currently taking place in Ukraine. I cook oatmeal while I learn about the new anti-gay legislation in Uganda. I pack my bag for the day while I listen to journalists around the country report on issues that I think every American should know about.

But they don’t. Americans are constantly going to the polls with little relevant information under their belts. According to a World Public Opinion study, 46 percent of Americans believe that there is no scientific consensus on whether climate change is occurring or simply think that climate change is not occurring at all. Forty-two percent of Americans are still unsure of President Obama’s birthplace (it’s Hawaii, by the way). Only a tenth of Americans can identify Afghanistan on a map despite a decade-long military engagement there. These numbers demonstrate how much misinformation American voters bring to the polls.

Getting an informed electorate is only part of the problem. Just getting an electorate is increasingly difficult. Over the past century, voter turnout during presidential elections has hovered around 50 percent. Voter turnout was highest during the second half of the nineteenth century, just following the end of the Civil War during the Era of Reconstruction. Although women were not given the right to vote until 1920, the 15th Amendment, which prohibited the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, color or previous condition of servitude, was ratified in 1870. Former slaves flooded to the polls to raise their newfound voices, yet for the last few decades, voting rates among blacks have been lower than whites until last election.

I must admit that as much as I try to keep myself informed about current issues, I often fall short. Last summer I was asked to sign a petition to repeal Alaska’s new oil tax, SB21. My friends were quick to lend their signatures. I was hesitant. I had been in Alaska for about a year, but could barely tell you the difference between a Sockeye and a Chinook salmon let alone understand the oil tax issues and arguments in Alaska. I was encouraged to sign the petition, but my lack of information led me to feel ambushed in the situation, and I refused to sign it.

Almost a year later–and a year of following news in Alaska–I still do not fully understand this issue. Would I have signed the petition today? Probably, but I still couldn’t tell you the different tax rates of ACES or SB21, define Economic Limit Factor taxes or tell you anything about how crude oil is refined.

While I will never be an expert in many of these fields, I still think that staying informed to the best of your ability is essential to a thriving democracy, and I will continue to learn about current issues, day by day, podcast by podcast. Being informed is not an end but rather an ongoing process. And even if I never can get all the facts straight about an issue, I will be able to sleep a bit more soundly knowing that I am not among the 25 percent of Americans who believe the sun revolves around the Earth.

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