Fall Lesson 2a: Becoming an Informed Voter: Preparing for the General Election

This lesson focuses on a voter’s need to be fully informed prior to casting a vote on Election Day and how to acquire the necessary information. Students learn what a yes or no vote or a decision to abstain means on a ballot. Students learn the definitions of amendment, initiative, proposition, and referendum. By completing the handouts for school referendums, students are given the opportunity to think critically and to learn firsthand why voters need to be fully informed about ballot questions.

Supplemental Materials

We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution student text correlations are offered as examples to use with Citizens, Not Spectators lessons when applicable. A comparable social studies text used in your classroom may be adapted instead for reference as needed.

The Citizens, Not Spectators middle school curriculum correlates with We the People,  Level 2, Unit Six, Lesson 29: “What are the rights and responsibilities of citizenship?”  (pp. 253–262) and Lesson 30: “How might citizens participate in civic affairs?” (pp. 263–74).

Suggested Grade Level

Middle school (Grades 6–8)

Estimated Time to Complete

One to two class periods

Lesson Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • define the terms abstain, amendment, direct democracy, initiative, popular sovereignty, proposition, and referendum;
  • explain the concepts of majority, majority rule, and minority rights;
  • understand what a yes or no vote or a decision to abstain means for each question on a ballot; and
  • understand why becoming an informed voter is necessary.


  • abstain
  • amendment
  • direct democracy
  • initiative
  • majority
  • majority rule
  • minority rights
  • popular sovereignty
  • proposition
  • referendum

Materials Needed

Teacher Resources

  • Quick Vocabulary (Teacher Resource 1)
  • Election ballot
  • Absentee ballot
  • Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide
    • The guides will contain information on the initiatives, propositions, referendums, or constitutional amendment questions for the upcoming election.

Student Handouts

  • Building Our Vocabulary (Student Handout 1)
  • School Referendum Questions (Student Handout 3)
  • School Referendum Information (Student Handout 4)
  • Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide from your secretary of state’s website
  • Election ballot or absentee ballot from your secretary of state’s website or registrar of voters


  • We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution, Level 2, or a comparable social studies text

Before the Lesson

  • Contact the registrar of voters office or visit your secretary of state’s website to obtain one copy of an election ballot and one absentee ballot. You might also be able to download these documents from your secretary of state’s website.
  • Review and photocopy all Lesson 2 teacher resources and student handouts.
  • Refer to your state constitution and local charter for titles, terms, and duties of elected offices on the ballot.
  • Students have been assigned to review the Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide for homework and to bring a list of questions they have about the information on the ballot.

Lesson Procedure

1. What Does the Election Ballot Look Like?

The election ballot, an absentee ballot, and the Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide are required for this part of the lesson. Students will also need their vocabulary lists (Student Handout 1).

Show students the actual election ballot for the fall election. Explain that a voter needs to learn about the candidates running for office. Voters also must understand the ballot questions in order to cast an informed vote.

  • Ask students to recall whether a registered voter can still cast a ballot if they are not in their home community for the election.
    • Show students the absentee ballot for the fall election and explain that this type of ballot can be used. However, it must be completed and mailed by the deadline set by your state.
  • Ask the students why an absentee ballot must be completed ahead of time.
    • Students should reply that the ballots must be counted.

Explain that voters need to find information for everything on the ballot before they can cast an informed vote. That can be a lot of work, and not everyone has time to research all the information needed to be an informed voter.

Ask students to take out their homework and prepare any questions they may have about the Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide. Explain that these guides provide a great deal of necessary information. They allow voters to learn about the candidates, offices, and initiatives or propositions on the ballot, as well as voting locations. Every registered voter receives one of these guides in the mail several months before the election. Inform the students that the guides are also available on your secretary of state’s website.

Ask students what questions they have about the guide and offer answers. Clarify titles, terms, and duties for the elected offices on the ballot.

2. Understanding Ballot Question Classifications

Teacher Resource 1, Student Handout 1, and We the People (or a comparable social studies text) are used for this part of the lesson.

Ask students to take out their vocabulary lists (Student Handout 1) and tell them that new vocabulary is used when considering the ballot.

Inform the students that there are different classifications for the ballot questions that voters are asked to consider. Define the following terms for the students: amendment, initiative, proposition, and referendum.

Explain to students that initiatives and propositions are examples of direct democracy. Amendments, initiatives, propositions, and referendums are good examples of popular sovereignty.

  • Define the term direct democracy (reference Teacher Resource 1).
  • Ask students whether voting is a form of direct democracy.
  • Instruct students to turn to a preselected page in a social studies text with brief information about popular sovereignty, and then ask a student to read it aloud. If using We the People, ask a student to read the paragraph about popular sovereignty on page 85.
  • Ask students if popular sovereignty is a form of direct democracy.

Ask students how many votes are needed to elect someone to office or pass ballot questions.

  • You can use the example of an election in which 1,000 votes are cast. Ask the students how many votes a candidate must receive to be elected.
  • Students might reply that a majority (501 votes) would be required to win.

Define the terms majority and majority rule. Some students may already know the definition of majority. Explain to the students the concept of minority rights. These terms are defined in Teacher Resource 1.

Add the definitions of amendment, direct democracy, initiative, proposition, majority, majority rule, minority rights, popular sovereignty, and referendum to the vocabulary chart. Instruct students to add the definitions to Student Handout 1.

Remind students that their ballot homework included reviewing the questions on the ballot. Tell students that a voter needs to be fully informed before casting a vote on each ballot question. A majority vote on each question will create or defeat a new law or policy.

3. Introducing Ballot Questions: How Would You Vote?

The school referendum questions handout (Student Handout 3) is required for this part of the lesson. The Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide are needed if there are questions about what is on the ballot.

The purpose of this part of the lesson is to show students that they must take the time to become informed voters and to make informed decisions on ballot questions. Students are asked to vote on several referendums on a school ballot. The information on the referendums is intentionally limited; however, ellipses indicate that more information is available.

Explain that the school is asking students to take a quick vote on several referendums under administrative consideration. Distribute Student Handout 3 and instruct students to read the ballot and circle their choice (yes, no, or abstain) in five minutes so that results can be sent to the school’s administration as soon as possible. Explain what the term abstain means.

Immediately ask students to show how they voted by raising their hands. Students may vote yes, no, or abstain. Keep a tally on the board. Ask a student at the back of the room to quietly keep a separate running tally.

When all votes are cast and tallied, ask students the following questions.

  • Which questions received a majority vote?
    • How did decisions to abstain affect the result?
  • Why did they vote yes on a referendum?
  • Why did they vote no on a referendum?
  • Why did they choose to abstain from voting?
  • How did they feel about being rushed through the process?

Compare your board tally with that of the student keeping a separate tally at the back of the room.

  • Did you arrive at the same results?
  • If not, why might that have happened? What can be done about it now?

Add the definition of the term abstain to the vocabulary chart. Instruct students to add the definition to Student Handout 1.

4. Critical Thinking Exercise: Can I Change My Vote?

Distribute Student Handout 4 and ask students to read it. Then ask them the following questions:

  • What did they really vote for or against?
  • Would they change their minds now if they could? Why?
  • Would those who had abstained from voting cast a vote now? If so, how might this have changed the outcome?
  • Did the terms majority rule and minority rightsplay a role in this ballot?
    • You may need to expand the definition of minority rights for the students.
    • Were any minority rights violated?
  • What have they learned about voting and the voting process?
    • The key response should be that they need to know more about what they are voting on and take more time to vote.
    • Students should also question the process itself. They might say that the vote should have been a secret ballot.

The activity students just completed should lead them to the idea that knowledge is a key to voting and that they need to be informed voters if they want to make a positive impact.

5. Concluding the Lesson: Can We Exercise Direct Democracy?

Ask students what they have learned about voting on ballot questions.

Ask a student to read the definitions of initiative and referendum.

Ask students whether the lesson’s voting exercise involved an initiative or referendum.

  • They should answer that the ballot was more like a referendum because the school administration created the questions. This is similar to a legislative body placing proposed legislation on a ballot for approval by voters.

6. Homework Assignment

Assign students a second review of the voter guide. Now that students have had exposure to an in-depth review of the ballot, explain that they need to review the ballot and determine how they will vote in the simulated election.



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