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How's your civics literacy?

Robert Houk • Jul 7, 2019 at 7:00 AM

A new law in Tennessee is a measure that requires high school students in this state pass a civics exam to graduate. It’s about time. Quite frankly, it’s something that I thought was already on the books.

Which gets me to the heart of the problem. What we THINK we know (and actually don’t) will hurt us.

Most Americans are sadly lacking when it comes to knowing their country’s history. They also stink at understanding how our government works.

But don’t try telling them they are woefully illiterate when it comes to civics. Keep your fake facts to yourself.

The Intercollegiate Studies Institute has found many Americans can’t pass a simple civics exam that is far less challenging than the test immigrants are required to take for U.S. citizenship.

Getting Rid of ‘Bums’

One civics issue that comes up regularly is term limits. There are offices now with constitutionally mandated term limits. They are generally found in the executive branch of government.

The governor of Tennessee can serve no more than two four-year terms. The same is true for the president of the United States.

Many think we need term limits for Congress to send ineffective politicians packing. The problem with “voting the bums out of office” is that it’s never the bum who represents you who needs to be gone. It’s always a bum in another legislative district who has stayed too long.

Unless you move to that district and properly register to vote there, you currently have no control over the number of terms that bum serves.

While many Americans think that getting bad politicians out of office is a problem, I think convincing good candidates to run may be our greatest obstacle to effective government. We demand our candidates to be as brave as David, as wise as Solomon and as strong as Samson.

But we don’t want them to tell us the truth if it conflicts with our beliefs or passions.

Shirking Our Duty

Some Americans are willing to do almost anything to avoid serving on a jury, a vital civic responsibility for maintaining our system of justice.

A state law was passed in 2009 that eliminated many of the archaic exemptions to jury duty based on age or occupation. Tennessee’s jury service law now makes no exception for a person’s age or profession.

Residents once believed they could avoid getting a jury summons by not registering to vote. Many would gladly give up one important civic responsibility in hopes of avoiding another.

In reality, court officials cull through a variety of public records to find prospective jurors. In many counties, Circuit Court clerks comb through driver’s license information and tax rolls to find names for jury service.

So register to vote, and more importantly, exercise that right on Election Day.

Taking Count

The federal census is a vital civic mandate spelled out in the Constitution. It’s the tool used to draw representative districts and to fairly distribute government resources.

The census has become an national issue of late after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the Trump administration’s idea of including a citizenship question on the 2020 Census.

Reapportionment does not stop with the redrawing of congressional districts. Numbers from the Census are used by state officials to realign legislative districts in the General Assembly. Census data also will be used to redraw County Commission districts, school board representation and voting precincts.

There have always been Americans who don’t trust the federal government to use the information it collects responsibly. That includes people of all partisan and ideological stripes.

Not filling out a census form could be costly for our region. Local governments stand to lose more than $1,350 per individual annually who has not been counted.

That could mean one or two fewer city bus routes in Johnson City, fewer free lunches prepared for needy Washington County students and fewer federal tax dollars to help rural residents obtain clean drinking water.

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