As chief of California’s judicial branch and the state’s chief elections official, we oversee vital acts of civic engagement. Citizens have both the right and responsibility to vote and to serve on a jury. They also have the right to protect their rights in our court system.
These rights and responsibilities derive from the Constitution and are intrinsic to democracy and the rule of law that form the foundation of our government.
Today – Constitution Day – we reflect on how fortunate we are that the constitutions of the United States and the state of California guarantee these and other rights of all Californians to participate in democracy. But these rights remain dormant without a foundation in civic engagement; a foundation that needs to be built anew with each generation.
The First Amendment guarantees the rights to freedom of speech and freedom of the press that allow each of us to speak freely and voice opinions about issues affecting our lives and our communities. Whether distributing pamphlets or posting on social media, talking from a soapbox in the town square or across the back fence, engaging in vigorous debate of public affairs is a fundamental right and essential to democracy.
Wisely, the federal and state constitutions provide us with further options for having our voices heard and resolving conflicts; we can turn to the courts and the ballot box. The Seventh Amendment of U.S. Constitution guarantees our right to a jury of our peers, and the hard-fought 14th, 19th and 26th amendments extend voting rights to all races, women and 18-year-olds.
So we are concerned about recent statistics that show that we are falling behind in these forms of civic engagement in California. In the 2014 midterm elections, less than 32 percent of eligible voters, and only 8 percent of people ages 18 to 24, cast a ballot. Further, more than 20 percent of Californians typically do not report for jury service when summoned.
To help get California back on track, we are teaming together to support young people in developing the knowledge, skills and values they need to participate in our democracy. The California Constitution guarantees every child a free public education, recognizing that education is “essential to the preservation of the rights and liberties of the people.” In addition to math and science, schools are expected to teach students how our government works, how the three branches provide checks and balances, and how to participate in our democracy.
The 2014 Report of the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning highlighted the vital role of public schools to prepare students for college, careers and civic life. It showcases rigorous and relevant civic learning opportunities for students such as mock elections, mock trials and civic action projects. These updated approaches have the added benefit of giving young people the communication and collaboration skills they need for the 21st-century workplace.
The recommendations also include practical ideas for what we can do as parents, business leaders and community members to prepare our youths for their roles in our communities. For example, we can read picture books about history to children; discuss the news with students; ask students what they are learning in civics; and get involved with our schools and communities and take young people with us.
Moreover, the California Education Code designates the last two weeks of September as High School Voter Education Weeks with many resources available at the secretary of state website for schools and students to participate. The state constitution guarantees the right to vote for any Californian who is a United States citizen, 18 years old at the time of the next election, a resident of the state, and not imprisoned or on parole for conviction of a felony. Eligible registered voters can cast a ballot in elections for federal, state and local office, and for or against statewide and local ballot measures.
All of these rights and responsibilities of civic engagement are protected by our constitutions. But the guiding star of civic engagement is in the U.S. Constitution’s opening words – “We the people.” Civic engagement starts with seeing the world as “we.” By talking and working together with neighbors, classmates, colleagues and fellow citizens, we can advance the public good and protect individual rights.
On Constitution Day, we celebrate these rights. But to preserve them, we must exercise them through active civic engagement and join together to provide the next generation, and each generation thereafter, with a high-quality civics education.
Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye is California’s Supreme Court chief justice. Alex Padilla is the California secretary of state.