ICYMI: How to help voters and candidates learn

voteartistic.jpgMy latest op-ed, title above, appeared in The Virginian-Pilot Thursday. In it, I propose a civics education academy.

Watching candidates struggle to answer questions at the forums I’ve attended hasn’t been fun. (Videos of two of the forums can be found here and here.) Patrick Wilson mentions some of this in his article today.

The candidates’ lack of political experience has led to some authentic moments. In an education forum on Tuesday, retired Marine and Barraud Park neighborhood leader Marcus Powell stumbled for words as he talked about appropriate school curriculum. At a forum at Booker T. Washington High School, Johnson referred to tolls as “polls” as the audience repeatedly tried to correct her.

The candidates often speak in generalities. As part of an answer to a question on school construction, Johnson said, “We’re going to have to take an overview look.”

Said Powell: “We need a clear-cut plan.”

Said candidate Lionell Spruill Jr.: “Every child in the city of Norfolk is mine, and I’m responsible for every child in the city of Norfolk as long as I sit on the City Council.”

All of the forums that I have attended have had really good, thoughtful questions. I wouldn’t call the candidates’ stumbling a lack of political experience as much as a lack of knowledge about the way government works. I’d like to see the candidates explain, for example, why the lack of taxing authority for the school board should or shouldn’t be a barrier to electing school board members. Yes, that’s hard to do in two minutes. But not attempting to do so makes it appear that the candidate really hasn’t thought about this issue.

And that, to me, is the biggest problem of all. Candidates want to be elected, but governing is hard work that requires a lot of study. At the very least, candidates should demonstrate that they have the ability to learn. As I wrote:

Essentially, they are asking the voters to hire them in order to obtain on-the-job training. Ultimately, voters choose the one they think is the most trainable.

Those who know little now and then learn little later become those elected officials who are too easily swayed by other forces – like their contributors – rather than their constituents.

We need well-informed representatives who will listen to their constituents. And we need well-informed voters who will hold their representatives accountable.

A civics education academy would be a great way to get both. I hope the organizations involved in civic engagement come together and make this happen.


Elizabeth PaigeMy column last week, “Navigating end-of-life care,” has elicited more comments from readers – emails, phone calls, notes, stopping me on the street to talk – than anything I’ve written in a while. Everyone, it seems, has a story to tell. I got a phone call this morning from a man whose wife has Alzheimers and breast cancer and four nursing homes have turned her down for admittance. Families have suffered in silence as they have navigated our health system. No amount of planning nor resources seems to matter – we are all at the mercy of a system that simply does not work for the benefit of the patients. That part needs to change, but it won’t as long as families experiencing it don’t speak up.

For those who have asked – my Mama is still with us – or, rather, her body is still here. Dementia is a cruel disease. Somebody once told me that life is one long goodbye. I’ve thought of that often as my Mama has deteriorated. Having someone taken away suddenly – as with my brothers and my father – is devastating but watching someone waste away is as well, albeit in a different way. I guess the best we can do is to tell the people we love often that we love them.

My column appears in The Virginian-Pilot every week, usually on Thursdays. You can see the columns as they are published here, or navigate to them from the PilotOnline.com homepage by clicking on Opinion and then choosing my name at the bottom of the dropdown list. You can also see the columns by liking my Facebook page. Although my column appears weekly, I am not and have never been an employee of The Virginian-Pilot nor am I paid for my contributions to the paper.


6 thoughts on “ICYMI: How to help voters and candidates learn

  1. 2 minutes? You mean 60 seconds. 60 seconds with 10 seconds of microphone feedback and/or no microphone is a joke. And that’s after being subjected to 15 minutes of auditory torture. What we really need are forums where candidates actually have time to form a complete thought and make a response…while being in a well lit area as opposed to a dark spot on a stage. Competent forum hosts help too.

    But I completely agree with the need for a civics academy. We need a campaign academy too. Too few people know how to run campaigns and too few of those people actually care about candidates and their communities more than a paycheck.

    1. The education candidates forum at Lafayette Winona was pretty well done: good lighting, the mics worked and the hosts/moderators were well-prepared. But with so many candidates on stage, giving them more than 2 minutes to respond – well, we’d still be there 🙂 Interestingly enough, 2 minutes was too long in some cases.

      The campaign thing is already there. Sorenson holds a short candidate training thing. But there’s really nothing on the civics education side.

      1. Norfolk GAINS did do a great job with their forum, you’re definitely right about that.

        The best ones I’ve ever been to, and I think it was just two, was where each candidate got an equal amount of time to talk and could use as much or as little as they liked on each question and their intro/outro.

        But for campaign school, I mean a non-partisan one. As far as I know, all the ones that exist are partisan and anyone who isn’t for one party or another, or one ideology or another, wouldn’t fit in at all. We need something at the local level for the hundreds of city council and school board elections where people waste hours knocking every door and don’t even know what a voter list is, let alone how to deal with a spreadsheet with tens of thousands of rows and dozens of columns because most will never be able to afford access to a voter database.

        There’s no reason anyone should be discouraged from running in local elections, or even House of Delegates elections, with relatively low turnout because they don’t understand that getting the 3k-10k votes you need to win can be done with minimal money if you understand the voter identification process and start 9 months out.

  2. So true. I have always liked Virginia’s and Norfolk’s election system. Keeping city, state, and federal elections separate should give the paper, as well as candidates and bloggers, more time to develop ideas. I wish even more time was spent in the compass on all candidates.

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