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Lesson Plan

This lesson is designed for Social Studies classrooms, grades 9-12

Lesson Objectives

By the end of this lesson, students will:
  1. Identify how the government plays a role in students' everyday lives.
  2. Analyze voter participation statistics and make inferences for why voter participation has decreased.
  3. Examine a campaign finance reform law in Arizona and discuss the impact it may have on voter participation.
  4. Brainstorm, develop, and implement an action plan for boosting local voter registration or participation.

Related National Standards


Standard 20
Understands the roles of political parties, campaigns, elections, and associations and groups in American politics

Level IV, Benchmark 6: Understands the significance of campaigns and elections in the American political system, and knows current criticisms of campaigns and proposals for their reform.
Standard 28
Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual and public goals
Level IV, Benchmark 1: Understands how individual participation in the political process relates to the realization of the fundamental values of American constitutional democracy.
Level IV, Benchmark 5: Understands the importance of voting as a form of political participation

Estimated Time to Complete Lesson

One to two 45-minute class periods. This lesson plan could require more class time depending upon the action plans developed by students for the final activity.

Materials Needed

  • Handout: Citizens Clean Elections Act (PDF File)
  • Internet access, or copies of relevant pages
  • Copy of the in-depth report on the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Act from the 11/1/02 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS broadcast and TV/VCR (Note: A free transcript of this segment is available on the NOW Web site. Teachers may also tape the broadcast off-air and use it in the classroom for one year. Alternatively, programs are available for purchase from ShopPBS (

Backgrounder for Teachers

The right to vote is a core component of any democracy. Specifications on voting in the United States have changed over time. For a concise summary of these changes, see the Voting Rights Timeline provided by LBJ for Kids. The National Archives provides the complete text of the U.S. Constitution, including amendments that adjust voting rights (15th, 19th , etc.), and provisions that specify the frequency of elections.

This lesson addresses the importance of voter participation in the political process. In addition to the resources noted in the Teaching Strategy and the Related Resources sections of this lesson plan, please note the following materials from NOW WITH BILL MOYERS:

Democracy Roundtable Discussion transcript (broadcast date: 11/1/02)
A group of distinguished panelists discuss the power of money in elections, reasons why people don't vote, the roles of political parties, reform efforts, etc.
America Votes Overview
International voter turnout comparisons, historical voting patterns in the U.S., and details on strategies/experiments used by other countries to increase voter turnout.
Voter Resource Map
A state-by-state map linking to state election guides, plus the percentage of participating voters in each state in 1998.
Getting Out the Vote transcript (broadcast date: 10/18/02)
This story talks about efforts to increase voter participation, how government affects everyone, etc.
NOW Election Resources
Links to Web sites related to Election 2002, campaign finance, general government and political info, etc.
Transcripts of Bill Moyers' interviews with Kathleen Hall Jamieson, political analyst and Dean of the Annenberg School for Communications:

Assumed Student Prior Knowledge

It is assumed that students have a foundation of the basic voting and election framework in the United States (i.e. all U.S. citizens have the right to vote when they turn 18 years old, the frequency of elections for various offices, etc.)

Teaching Strategy

1. Begin by having students take a few minutes to list how the government has affected their day so far. If students have difficulties making connections, use some of these prompts to stimulate ideas:

  • When your alarm went off this morning, did music play?
  • Did you turn on any water at your house to take a shower, brush teeth, or wash dishes?
  • Were any of the clothes you put on today imported?
  • Did you eat any food today?
  • Did you travel on any roads today?
  • You are at school now. How does government influence your school day?
After a few minutes, invite students to share some of their notes and discuss ways the government plays a role in each of these activities. Ask students if they believe government is an institution that can make their lives better or worse. Then ask students how important they think it is for citizens to participate in government. Students should justify their responses.

2. Explain to students that voter participation is nearing an all-time low. In the 1964 presidential elections, 69.3 percent of the voting age population cast a ballot. In 2002, that number was only 54.7 percent. The numbers for midterm elections are worse. During the last midterm election in 1998, only 36.4 percent of the voting age population made it to the polls. (Note: See NOW's America Votes Overview for more voting data. Also, state breakdowns of Voter Registration and Turnout Statistics are available from the Federal Election Commission. The FEC also provides voting statistics organized by age, race, and gender.) Have students examine the statistics and then discuss with a partner ideas why voter participation has decreased. Each partnership should record their theories. Give enough time for students to come up with several thoughtful ideas, then have partnerships share their thinking with the class. (Ideas will vary, but may include theories such as people don't care about politics, people are too busy to study election issues, people in some districts feel voting is pointless because of the heavy dominance of one political party, people are physically unable to get to the polls, people are dissatisfied with proposed candidates, people don't believe government is capable of making their lives better (as opposed to churches, unions, or other institutions), people feel disconnected from the major issues being debated, political parties are weaker than they used to be, etc.)

3. Explain to students that various initiatives have been proposed to reform the political process and increase participation. To examine one such proposal in-depth, they will watch an approximately 10-minute report from the PBS weekly news magazine program, NOW WITH BILL MOYERS that focuses on a democracy reform effort being implemented in the state of Arizona. Distribute the handout, "Citizens Clean Elections Act" to help students capture key ideas from the report. (Alternatively, you could distribute copies of the story transcript and have students work with their partners to complete the handout.) Following the video, ask students what type of impact they think such a reform law will have on voter participation? Have students justify their opinions on their handout.

4. Ask students to review their thinking from step 2 of this lesson plan and brainstorm strategies for overcoming some of the perceived obstacles to voter participation in your community. Allow students to work individually, in small groups, or as a class to select one of the strategies, set a project goal (i.e. set a number of new voters to register or commitments to vote by registered voters), develop a written action plan, and implement that plan. Read the transcript from NOW's 10/18/02 broadcast on Getting Out the Vote or visit the League of Women Voter's tips for ideas.

Assessment Recommendations

  1. Assess the clarity and completeness of student work on the "Citizens Clean Elections Act" handout.
  2. Grade the final activity on the quality of each student's participation in developing and implementing the selected plan.

Extension Ideas

In addition to the ideas noted below, be sure to review the Starter Activities and Take Action ideas related to this lesson's topic.

1. Create a follow-up report to the NOW WITH BILL MOYERS story on Arizona by researching the campaign finance reform laws in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maine. Students should compare and contrast the laws, achievements, and shortcomings of each state's activities.

2. Conduct a community survey to determine why greater numbers of people locally don't vote. Use that data to inform the action plans developed in the lesson's final activity.

3. Examine the League of Women Voter's national survey of voters and non-voters and draw conclusions on civic participation.

4. Watch the approximately 20-minute Democracy Roundtable discussion from the 11/1/02 NOW WITH BILL MOYERS broadcast, or read the transcript, and debate panelists' ideas on the power of money in elections, reasons for why people don't vote, the roles of political parties, and whether reform efforts should begin with government or grassroots activity.

5. Conduct in-depth statistical analysis on who historically votes and who doesn't in the United States and make inferences on the potential agendas of government as a result. Statistics can be easily accessed through sites listed in the Related Resources section of this lesson plan.

6. Review what the original U.S. Constitution says about voting requirements and how those provisions have changed over time through various amendments.

7. Compare international voter turnout with that of the United States, using the statistics from NOW's America Votes Overview as a resource. Consider the strategies outlined on that page for increasing voter turnout in select countries. Would any of those strategies work in the U.S.? Why or why not?

Related Resources

Below are some sites that provide useful information related to this lesson's topic. Be sure to also see NOW's Election Resource page.

About Elections and Voting
The Federal Elections Commission aggregates national and state statistics on voter registration and turnout, provides information on the administrative structure of U.S. elections, etc.

Directory of U.S. Political Parties
A comprehensive listing of details and links for political parties that includes the Republican and Democratic parties, plus active third parties (Green, Reform, etc.), and "other" parties that have yet to field or endorse a candidate for public office.

The Importance of Voting
A November 1, 2000 "Talking It Over" column from Hillary Rodham Clinton examining the growing problem of voter apathy.

League Poll of Voters and Nonvoters Shows Alienation is Not a Factor in Nonvoting
In 1996, the League of Women Voters commissioned the first-ever national survey to probe the key differences between voters and non-voters. Conducted by the Mellman Group and Wirthlin Worldwide, the survey found that voting is all about connections.

U.S. Electoral College National Archives and Records Information
National Archives and Records Information (NARA) provides extensive information on the electoral college, including electoral college box scores from 1789-2000, an electoral college calculator tool to create your own election, general information, and more.

Voting and Registration
The U.S. Census Bureau collects information on reported voting and registration by various demographic and socioeconomic characteristics.

About the Author
Cari Ladd is an educational writer with a specialty in secondary school Social Studies. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive's Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource Web site, and online professional development services for teachers of mathematics and science. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.

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