Citizenship Requires Informed Voting

We expect the government to provide services, such as defense and education. The best we can do is walk into the ballot box prepared and informed. 

An election official and voters outside a polling location in Minneapolis in November 2020. (Lorie Shaull / Flickr)

On Jan. 20, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address and challenged his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” Kennedy’s plea came as part of a larger program to encourage public service at home and across the globe, but the idea remains more relevant than ever. The citizen-republic relationship is not a one-way obligation. We cannot just demand our country care for us while offering nothing in return. Citizens owe something to their nation. 

The founders believed a republic could not survive without an educated citizenry. In 1778, Thomas Jefferson drafted “A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge” to establish a system of public education. He argued that the best way to prevent tyranny was “to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large.” In particular, they needed to have “knowledge of those facts … of the experience of other ages and countries” in order to recognize “ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes.” 

John Adams agreed and suggested that the “liberal education of youth, especially of the lower class of people, are so extremely wise and useful, that, to a humane and generous mind, no expense for this purpose would be thought extravagant.” 

Jefferson, Adams and many of their contemporaries concluded that only educated citizens would possess the necessary critical thinking skills to analyze their options, evaluate candidates for office, and assess whether a leader was trying to dupe them. They assumed educated citizens would naturally engage to seek out information and assess that intelligence with a penetrating eye. In short: They believed informed voting was key to upholding the republic.

Twenty-first-century citizens should embrace this opportunity. They should study their ballots. They should research politicians, their positions on key issues, and their proposed policies. If we expect the government to provide services such as national defense, education and health services, the best we can do is practice informed voting. 

A recent focus group of undecided voters in Nevada revealed that many of the participants didn’t know where the two candidates stood on abortion—perhaps the most hot-button and heavily covered issue in this election cycle. It took me all of a minute to search Adam Laxalt’s name on Google, and the second search result is an audio clip of him discussing his views in an interview. Not spin—the candidate’s own words. Sixty seconds of my time and a few minutes to watch the video to figure out Laxalt is anti-abortion. 

Early voting has started in many states, and the last day to vote is on Election Day, Nov. 8—meaning voters still have time to research their candidates before the midterms and decide how to vote. Maybe the focus group participants just hadn’t done their homework yet? But they owe it to the country to inform themselves about the options before stepping into the ballot box. Citizenship is not free from obligation. 

Admittedly, life is hard. For most people, the demands on their time can be overwhelming, especially for less educated people who tend to be lower income, and especially during a pandemic and an age of constant news cycles. Citizens do not need to follow every Twitter squabble or news crisis to be informed, and most don’t have the time to. So, where does that leave us as a nation? 

The fragmentation of the media has made it difficult to find reliable sources of information, particularly on candidates for local office. Here, the media can improve. They can provide spin-free guides to elections and candidates, particularly in local papers and on local stations. They can report on what candidates say rather than on what others say about them, and they can point out when candidates offer contradictory messages. Wide dissemination of information creates informed voting.

Some media outlets are already doing this good work. For example, the Nevada Independent offers nonpartisan coverage of both local and state-level elections. Ballotpedia provides a comprehensive overview of candidates, their history, the seat’s history, and links to campaign sites for elections across the country. Ideally, these sites are a starting point rather than the only source, but they are certainly better than nothing. Less than 30 percent of Americans trust the media to get their facts straight; however, some excellent studies show that bias amongst reputable journalists is quite low. If voters are uncertain, they can always check the bias of their sources and make sure they are digesting sources from multiple perspectives. 

Despite the challenges, it is not acceptable to give up, to stop reading, or to vote solely based on political party or incumbent status without any additional information. Elections are the bedrock of democracies; they require protection and devotion. Despite our increasing partisan divide, the tenor of our politics, and the threats to our institutions, it remains a privilege to live here. 

We need only look around the globe to remind ourselves of the alternatives. During the 2017 elections in Kenya, 104 supporters of the opposition party were killed by police and armed gangs. In 2018 and 2020, the Maduro regime in Venezuela arrested and harassed opposition party leaders and activists. And just last month, Russian soldiers forced Ukrainian residents in occupied territory to vote “under a gun barrel” for staged referendums. 

In the United States, voting is a right. But we should treat it as a privilege and cherish it accordingly. We all must practice informed voting.

From candidates to key races, here’s Ms.’s 2022 midterm voting guide, which includes all you need to know ahead of the upcoming elections:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.


Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is a presidential historian and Scholar in Residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College. She is also the author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution and can be followed on Twitter @lmchervinsky.