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The need for civics education and voter registration

This is the 40th year of The City Club of San Diego. Despite the fact we’ve presented 1,193 programs in the public interest and despite The City Club’s standing as one of the America’s top public forums — No. 3 by one rating organization — The City Club remains largely unknown in our town.

How do I know? Because of the many, many times I’ve been asked, “What do you do?” and answer, “I’m the president of The City Club of San Diego,” which invariably is followed by, “What is that?”

“Civic idiots” is not a reference to those ignorant of The City Club (however tempting), but rather concerns those whose concept of civic life is seriously limited — a rather substantial number in San Diego.

It's imperative I begin by asserting the one certain measure of any democratic society is the measurement of those who vote and those who don't.

In San Diego County there are 2,135,863 eligible voters. Of that number, 1,545,924 are registered to vote. In 2014 only 692,434 voted, which means, 853,490 registered voters did not vote, or that 1,443,429 eligible voters didn’t even bother registering.

In last year’s mayoral election, 290,192 San Diegans voted; 377,176 did not.

In California there are 24,288,154 eligible voters; 17,803,823 are registered. In last year’s general election, 2,966,267 voted, meaning 14,837,565 who could have voted, didn’t, amounting to 21,321,887 of those eligible to vote.

In the presidential elections of 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012, 481,095,000 Americans of eligible voting age did not vote, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Is there anyone reading these numbers, these appalling numbers, who believes the United States of America is a model of democracy? Anyone? Does anyone wish to defend our fellow citizens’ right not to vote?

The words of Pericles to the Athenians — “We do not imitate, but are a model to others” — can no longer be invoked about America, as President John Kennedy once did, without shame.

To say I find such nonvoting statistics stunning, would be a vast understatement — and understatement is not my thing.

So what do we do?

I don’t know what you will do, but I know what The City Club is already doing, and has for many years. We involve high school students in every event we hold. We do this because too many young people today have little experience of civic life or understand its meaning. By the way, every service club in San Diego should have student guests at their luncheons at least once a month.

Richard Dreyfuss, the Academy Award-winning actor (“The Goodbye Girl”), came to The City Club on a recent Saturday morning at La Jolla Country Day School to speak on the consuming passion of his life: the teaching of civics in public schools.

Dreyfuss, greeted by a standing room-only audience, spoke and took questions for more than an hour, and then stayed another hour talking to people about his passion.

Impressive? I would say so, but in his campaign to restore the teaching of civics in America’s classrooms, he is not alone.

Ira Lechner and his wife, Eileen Haag, prominent San Diegans, have started Inspire U.S., a nonprofit committed to leadership, community and democracy. Their goal is to get 85 percent of American high school students to pledge to register and vote.

Lechner and. Haag say now is the critical time. From now to 2020, 17 million Americans will have graduated from high school and will have a chance to play a vital role in the 2020 national election.

Inspire U.S. has scored some significant breakthroughs.

In West Virginia — whose late Sen. Jennings Randolph led the fight for the 26th Amendment to the Constitution in 1971, lowering the voting age from 21 to 18 — Inspire student teams are working to get 100 percent of their classmates to “pledge to reg” and “pledge to vote.” By the end of last November, three of the state’s high schools had achieved 95 percent of their goal.

Arizona high school student leader Ellie Dries signed up 54 of her classmates on National Voter Registration Day, pledging to vote.

In Kentucky, Inspire has seen 24 high schools supporting 100 percent student registration.

Closer to home, two remarkable Del Norte High School seniors in 4S Ranch, Justin Shin and Sam Haber, have started Youth Political Awareness, their own political action committee.

Their goal, as with Lechner, Haag and Dreyfuss, is to get students involved.

Jonathan Shulman, who teaches history at La Jolla Country Day School, and is the reason for The City Club/Country Day partnership, introduced me to Justin and Sam over dinner recently at The Haven Pizzeria in Kensington.

Oh my, how terrific these young men are, and how admirable their goal, which is nothing less than involving students in saving America and ensuring our future by the only plausible certainty in a democracy – voting.

It’s a little footnote, but at the last Get out the Vote luncheon held in San Diego, a large affair at the old Royal Inn across from the harbor, I was one of two speakers.

The other: Pete Wilson, mayor of San Diego from 1971 to 1983. In the ensuing 32 years, I am not aware of any similar event in this town, this county or this state.

There are two basic reasons for this: politicians and political consultants.

Nothing terrifies consultants more than having thousands of previously unregistered voters register.

Consultants know their voters, they know their names and they know their voting habits. A sudden surge in voter registration plays havoc with their research. It takes consultants out of their comfort zone — and it might threaten their livelihoods.

If it were within my power to mandate by law that every citizen 18 and older register and vote, as in Australia and Switzerland, I would not hesitate to invoke that power.

I would do so knowing that when you reach a critical mass where people neither register nor vote, you lose your democracy.

We are near that critical mass.

Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader.

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