PBS: By the People, Election 2004
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Get It on the Ballot

Referenda and ballot initiatives have become powerful tools for ordinary citizens to affect change in their communities. Ballot initiatives in various states have ended affirmative action programs, given voters the chance to support legalized medical marijuana use and physician-assisted suicide. What if more people felt strongly about things in your community? Is there something your students would like to change?

Estimated Time of Completion:

I. Objectives
II. Estimated Time
III. Necessary Materials
IV. Teaching Procedure
V. Evaluation Activities
VI. Assessment Recommendations
VII. Extension/Adaptation Ideas
VIII. Online Resources
IX. Relevant National Standards

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I. Objectives

Students will understand the process by which legislation is created or changed

Students will understand the role of the individual in the political process

Students will write persuasive arguments for a particular position

Students will become familiar with key local issues

II. Estimated Time

One week, or approximately four, one-hour classes

III. Necessary Materials

Copies of the article, "I Petition, You Petition, We All Petition for Ice Cream," by Curt Brown; available here

  • Copies of Worksheets I, II, and III
  • Computers with Internet access
  • Alderperson/City Council Representative

IV. Prerequisites

1. Research skills, including use of the Internet

2.nbsp;General knowledge of civics

3.nbsp;Persuasive writing skills

V. Teaching Procedure

Day 1:Have the class brainstorm things they would like to see changed in their community. Are curfew laws too strict? Are there enough community programs for teenagers? Are the local parks kept in good condition? Are there simple ordinances that don't serve any logical purpose and should be changed? (10 minutes)

Instructor will lead a reading and discussion of the article,"I petition, you petition, we all petition for ice cream," by Curt Brown. Emphasis should be placed on the following terms: bylaw, statute, ordinance, petition, amendment, initiative and referendum.

Discussion questions might include:
- Can you think of any examples of bylaws in our community?
- What did Sara Gentile do to strengthen her arguments in support of ice cream trucks?
- Why did Sara have to get special permission to address her town's voters?
Do you think that's reasonable?
- What amendment did the Parks Department offer to Sara's proposal?
- Did she respond?
- Were you surprised at how much Sara had to do to ultimately change the bylaw?
- In our system, who writes laws? Why?
- How do laws usually get changed? Why?
(25 minutes)

At the end of class, students will work in pairs doing Internet research on what the process is for initiating community changes like the one Sara Gentile sought, using Worksheet I. (20 minutes)
Students will share answers by reporting to the group. (5 minutes)

Homework: Pick a local law that you would like to see changed. Write a paragraph to convince your classmates of how the change will improve community life.

Day 2:Instructor will ask for three students to volunteer their proposals. (10 minutes)

  • Of the three that they hear, students will vote on the proposal they feel requires immediate attention. (10 minutes)
  • Students should spend the remainder of the class period conducting Internet research on how to initiate the change decided by the class. Using Worksheet II, students will learn about the ballot initiative process. (30 minutes)
  • Instructor will lead a discussion in which the questions on Worksheet II are discussed. (10 minutes)
  • IHomework: Students will write three questions about the ballot initiative process that they want to ask their alderperson.

Day 3:IDuring a discussion of a recent local initiative, the local alderperson or city council representative will give an overview of the process and answer any questions about the process of creating or changing legislation.

Day 4: Using Worksheet III students will work together in groups of three to draft arguments to persuade people to sign their petitions.

  • Have students develop a realistic schedule for gathering petition signatures and make assignments for every individual.
  • Optional: Bring in a lawyer (through your state or local bar association's speakers bureau http://www.abanet.org/barserv/stlobar.html) to work with students on their persuasive arguments.
  • Homework: Begin gathering signatures.
  • Follow up: Have students report how many signatures they have gathered each day for a week and add to a daily totals chart. Have students follow the process through as far as possible. Spend five minutes each day.

VI. Assessment Recommendations

Students can be assessed on pair work and group and class participation.
Final essay. Now that they have experienced a ballot initiative firsthand, do students think it is too easy for ordinary citizens to be involved in the legislative process, or is it too difficult? Why or why not, and what should be changed? Students can also be assessed on both the questions they posed to the speakers as well as their final essays. Do they understand the initiative process? Are they able to differentiate between a initiative and a referendum? Do they use the terms from Day 1 in their final essays? Are their arguments well supported?

VII. Extension/Adaptation Ideas

  • This activity can be scaled back to a one- or two-day strategy in which students read the article and define the terms, and then consider something they'd like changed at school. They can then collect student signatures and present them to the administration.
  • Arrange for a field trip to a school board meeting, or if you live near the capitol, organize a trip to your state legislature when it is in session, and have students compare official lawmaking to their grassroots efforts.
  • Using the public library or newspaper Web sites, have students research the background of ballot initiatives on issues that interest them in other states. Where did the initiative originate? Were paid petition collectors used, and did this generate controversy? What was the result?

VIII. Online Resources
Ballot Initiative Strategy Center


The Center for Voting and Democracy

Federal Election Commission

IX. Relevant National Standards
This lesson addresses the following national curriculum standards established by the
Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning


Understands the sources, purposes and functions of law, and the importance of the rule of law for the protection of individual rights and the common good

Knows responsibilities individual citizens and people serving in government should assume to insure the preservation and improvement of constitutional government

Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals

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