Voter Education in Basic Education

In tomorrow's election in the United States, the party that manages to convince their supporters to go out and vote will win. Society does reflect a situation in which we have already acknowledged that convincing people that our values matter do not work and what simply works is exciting people with what they already believe in. Such is the enigma of moral education. Richard Weissbourd shared a story in the Harvard Education Letter years ago: "I asked my six-year-old daughter and a few of her friends a question posed in a popular character education program: “Should you be honest with your teacher if you forget your homework?” One of my daughter’s friends hesitated slightly but then piped up: “Do you want me to tell you what you want to hear, or do you want me to tell you the truth?” Emboldened, another friend stated flatly, “I know that you want me to say I should be honest, but nobody is honest about that.” Weissbourd cited research that showed students "felt only patronized by lectures on values". And teaching values on one of the most important exercises in any democracy, voting, is no exception. Frederick Charles Schaffer concluded in Clean Elections and the Great Unwashed, "Efforts to clean up elections through voter education are disciplinary projects that sometimes go awry." Telling those who accept favors for their votes that such act is wrong can easily backfire.

Research shows that ads like the one shown above does not work.
(Copied from Clean Elections and the Great Unwashed)

When we tell the poor not to sell their votes, we think we are taking a moral high ground. But in reality, to the poor, we are in fact attacking their identity. Values are closely attached to one's beliefs and one's identity. We cannot address the problem of vote buying in elections without looking through the lens of those who are selling their votes. Values education always require a relationship with those whom we are trying to teach. Otherwise, it becomes patronizing or even offensive. We must try to understand the nature of vote buying and what it really means to those who are selling their votes. Schaffer, for instance, finds that people who "sell their votes" do not really see such transaction as "selling". Most do not actually think that they are required to vote for the candidate from whom the money or goods originate. Most are actually not changing their minds because of the favors they are receiving. They are already voting for the same candidate so why not earn some money along the way. Others also do not see favors as buying their votes but as mere gestures of goodwill. After all, for those who have no influence on policy and decision making, receiving something before the elections is the only occasion they see themselves benefitting from politics. Voter education that only focuses against vote buying therefore completely ignores these circumstances. 

Telling someone he or she is wrong often does not work. This is not like mathematics or science where there is a correct answer regardless of one's opinion. In the field of beliefs and values, we can only work to understand each other's perspective. And this we can only attain through a genuine relationship. Only through a relationship can I see more clearly what the problem is, and perhaps offer a less confrontational or less insulting way of teaching. More importantly, I may even find a better way of addressing the problem without forcing my values on others. Vote buying, for example, requires capital. Requiring candidates to provide complete information on their campaign financing is a better step than making the poor look blind when they sell their votes. Vote buying is after all destructive to democracy because those who put capital into vote buying will want that money back in the future.


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