A bill that would require students at New Jersey public colleges and universities to receive instruction on American government and civic engagement is one step closer to passage after a Senate committee approved it earlier this week.
Majority Whip Sen. Troy Singleton (D-7) reintroduced the measure in January. He said the measure would increase understanding of how American democracy works and that it’s his hope to boost civic participation in the state.
“I think fundamentally, more broadly, there’s been, especially over the last decade, a persistent misinformation and disinformation campaign, waged by some, to undermine the credibility of our democracy here in our country. And I fundamentally believe that we are seeking to raise and create citizen leaders in order, frankly, to maintain our basic democratic foundation,” Singleton said.
He also stressed that civics lessons under the proposal would be nonpartisan.
“The proposal we envision, frankly, is not to shade any ideology one way or another. That’s not the goal. It’s really to make a more informed electorate. So they can move forward,” Singleton said.
A 2021 survey conducted by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that 56% of U.S. adults could name all three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial.
That percentage is up from just around 30% in 2018.
The Annenberg Public Policy Center poll suggested that external stressors like the coronavirus pandemic, protests over racial justice, and concerns over the electoral process may have prompted the increase.
Voter turnout also increased in all 50 U.S. states during the 2020 presidential election, according to a recent Pew Research Center report. During that election, New Jersey saw a 9% increase in voter turnout compared to the 2016 presidential election. Overall, 72% of registered voters cast ballots in 2020.
Last year’s general election saw the highest voter turnout in New Jersey history for a gubernatorial election. However, only 40% of registered voters cast ballots in the 2021 gubernatorial election, a 1% increase from the 2017 gubernatorial election.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle considered last year’s turnout to be disappointingly low.
“Jersey is not unique in that voter turnout for presidential races far exceeds governor races, which is unfortunate considering all that’s at stake in our state. Having said that, the 2021 governor’s race did see the greatest number of gubernatorial votes in state history. Still, as a state, we need to do better,” said Republican gubernatorial candidate, Jack Ciatterelli, in a 2021 op-ed published in the North Jersey Record.
And Singleton agrees that there is still more work to be done in regards to voter turnout, noting that it can sometimes be frustrating to hear complaints about the government from people who don’t partake in civic action.
His proposal is similar to a measure enacted last summer known as the “Laura Wooten Law,” which requires the state to teach civics education in middle school.
“We’ve got to start early educating folks on their place in this democracy and why their voices are so important, and demanding that they be engaged,” Singleton said.
It also authorized the New Jersey Center For Civic Education at Rutgers University to create civics curriculum for middle and high school students and allowed the center to provide professional development and technical assistance to schools.
Arlene Gardner is president of the board and said she had been an advocate for the passage of the middle school law for 12 years.
She said she isn’t exactly sure why it took so long for the measure to pass.
“When this finally passed last July, it was unanimous in both houses in New Jersey. Previously, I don’t know. I couldn’t convince people that it was important enough,” Gardner said. “The prior commissioner of education under Governor Christie thought that the state standards were sufficient. And we just couldn’t convince him that they were necessary.”
She also supports Singleton’s college proposal.
Gardner said that the January 6 insurrection last year may have convinced some state lawmakers to focus more on measures that promote civics education.
“A couple of people have mentioned it. And that was quite an eye-opening day,” she said.
The Senate Higher Education Committee approved Singleton’s bill requiring civics education in college. However, it has yet to be introduced in the General Assembly during the current session.