Decision 2012: Civics & Citizenship
Voting is the cornerstone* of a democracy. It's the way “we the people” shape our government. But in 2008, only 57 percent of eligible Americans cast their votes in the presidential election — and turnout was even lower among those 18 to 24 years old.
Throughout our nation's history, groups have fought to expand suffrage to those once excluded, such as women and minorities. Using the First Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly, press and petition, dedicated individuals worked together to mount successful campaigns for change, and voting is now a right guaranteed to Americans age 18 and older, regardless of their sex or the color of their skin. The remaining challenge facing the electorate is to carry through by casting a vote. Participation is vital for our democracy to remain a true reflection of the citizens it represents.
Even if you're not 18 yet, there are ways for you to get involved in your local, state and national elections. The same First Amendment freedoms exercised by suffrage activists also protect the right of all Americans — even kids — to voice their perspectives on the issues that are important to our nation today. Using these freedoms, every American can get involved in shaping how our country moves forward. For example, you could write letters to your elected officials or hold a rally in support of a cause you think is important. You could write an article about an important local issue or post a video online sharing your perspective on this fall's presidential election. Whatever you do, learning about the election and other current events is the first step toward becoming an active and engaged citizen.
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Political organizations play a leading role in shaping elections today. Through their priorities and spending habits, these groups can control the public agenda by deciding which issues receive the most attention in the media and constructing the messages that bombard voters throughout election season. But most Americans have very little understanding of what different political organizations are or how they operate.
Candidate committees are the driving force behind individual campaigns, separate from the party committees that operate at national, state and local levels. Political Action Committees (PACs) organize around an issue rather than a candidate and can fund candidates' campaigns or spend money independently. Super PACs are a new type of federal-level organization that can raise money in unlimited amounts from individuals, groups or corporations. Unlike PACs, they can't give this money directly to candidates, but they can spend it to support or oppose specific candidates. Nonprofit groups registered as 501(c)(4) organizations are usually linked to social issues such as the environment or gun rights. Unlike PACs and super PACs, which must report their donations to the Federal Election Commission on a regular basis, nonprofit groups have the freedom to raise unlimited amounts of money without making the sources of the donations public.
Through clever use of a combination of all of the above groups, candidates are able to publicize their fundraising and spending when it is convenient and conceal their roles in funding attack ads or other tactics that would reflect unfavorably on their campaigns. The special-interest groups with the wealthiest PACs, super PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations wield great power in controlling which ideas Americans are focusing on in the run-up to Election Day. Knowing how to follow the money trail is a key skill for every voter who wants to know the origin of the campaign messages that saturate the media.
*You can find the definitions of boldfaced words in the Decision 2012 Glossary.
More to Explore
No matter the party or platform, every presidential candidate has to follow certain steps to go from being a White House hopeful to residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
Getting involved in this year's presidential election doesn't have to be limited to casting a vote in November. Pick an issue that you feel strongly about and exercise your First Amendment freedoms.
To become an educated voter, it's important to follow news about the election and keep track of what the candidates are saying. But not all news sources are created equal, and sometimes candidates stretch the truth in hopes of winning your vote.
How do you see the candidates in the current U.S. presidential race using social media? How is this the same and how is it different from what has been happening in other places around the world?