Lesson: Being an Informed Voter


Lesson Overview

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.

Suggested Grade Level

Middle school

Estimated Time to Complete

One to two class periods of 45 minutes each

Lesson Objectives

After completing this lesson, students should be able to:

  • define all the terms in the vocabulary list;
  • compare the concepts of majority rule and minority rights;
  • explain what is found on a voting ballot in their state;
  • reflect on why becoming an informed voter is necessary in the American Electoral System.

Vocabulary

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

Materials Needed

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/or one absentee ballot to be used in the election cycle being discussed.
  • Review all of the materials needed for the Lesson, (make copies as needed).
  • Refer to your state constitution and local charter for titles, terms, and duties of elected offices on the ballot.
  • Assign students to review the Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide for homework and to bring to class a list of questions (assign a minimum/maximum if necessary) they have about the information on the ballot.

Lesson Procedure

1. How Would You Vote?

(Vocabulary words are listed as part of this lesson. You the teacher should complete whatever vocabulary activity that your class has become accustomed to, i.e. a vocabulary-wall or a journal entry, etc. Definitions can be found in Teacher Resource 1 if needed.)

Ask students to complete the ballot which you are giving them (Student Handout 1) because the school administration is considering these items. (The information on the handout is intentionally limited; however, ellipses indicate that some additional information is available) The need is immediate, so the ballots must be completed and collected to be sent down to the administrative offices all in 5-6 minutes. (You may need to define the word abstain for them). Do not stop students from consulting with one-another quietly. Ask one of your students to collect the ballot and pre-arrange for their “play-acting” delivery of them.

Immediately ask students to show how they voted on each item, (yes, no, or abstain) by raising their hands. 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 tallied, ask students the following questions.

  • Which measures received a majority vote?
  • Differentiate between a referendum and an initiative? (You may need to help them with this)
  • Which of these measures were referendums and which were initiatives and which are neither?
  • Why did they choose to abstain from voting?
  • How did decisions to abstain affect the result for an individual measure?
  • 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?

2. Can I Change My Vote?

Distribute Student Handout 2 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?

Review the following questions. They may add to the current discussion or elaborate the discussion to a larger discussion that leads students to the rest of the lesson.

  • Did majority rule and minority rights play a role in this ballot? (You may need to expand the definition of minority rights for the students. The We the People text or the text of your school will help.)
  • 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.
  • How might the process itself be changed? (Or some such question that has students review the process used to vote.)
    • They might say that the vote should have been a secret ballot.

At this point, students should come to the main focus of the lesson - knowledge is key to voting and that they need to be informed voters if they want to make a positive impact.

3. What Does the Election Ballot Look Like?

Show students the actual election ballot (for the election you are working on). Conduct a mini discussion on the importance of why a voter would need to be informed before casting their vote. Be sure to incorporate segments 1 & 2 of this lesson and the possible need for absentee ballots.

Ask students to take out their homework and review any questions they may have about the Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide.

Why are these guides important?

  • 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 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, as needed.

4. Understanding Ballot Question Classifications (Optional)

(This segment of the lesson can be done as a separate entity or as part of the conclusion.)

Conduct a mini discussion with your students that included questions along with your comments:

  • What are the different classifications of ballot questions that voters are asked to consider?
  • Ask students to define the following terms: amendment, initiative, proposition, and referendum.
  • Explain to students that initiatives and propositions are examples of direct democracy. Amendments, initiatives, propositions, and referendums are all good examples of popular sovereignty. Which, if any, are on their current election ballot?
  • Ask students whether voting is a form of direct democracy? Why or Why not? 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.
    • 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.
  • Why are ballot questions as important as positions which will be renewed (i.e. mayor, council member, state assemblyperson, governor, etc.) in elections?
    • (A majority vote on each question will create or defeat a new law or policy.)

5. Concluding the Lesson

Review the important parts of this lesson by asking students:

  • What they have learned about voting on ballot questions.
  • To differentiate between an initiative and a referendum.
  • whether the lesson’s initial “school voting exercises” involved an initiative or referendum (have the students identify each of the measures listed).
  • Why is it important to be an informed voter?

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