FRANKFORT – A little more than a week ago, I had the honor to visit Jenny Mead’s fifth grade students at Prestonsburg Elementary to talk about our country’s and Kentucky’s constitutions and the roles those timeless documents play when it comes to protecting our rights and running our governments.
These students were extremely receptive, and give me hope that our future is in good hands. Their love of learning, and the enthusiasm they have regarding our country’s history and why we have the greatest nation on earth, is something I would like to see every American have.
My remarks to the class coincided with the National Conference of State Legislatures’ 18th annual “America’s Legislators Back to School Program,” which has state legislators visiting classrooms to help the students learn more about their government.
This initially began as a one-day event but now covers most of the school year. Kentucky has traditionally had some of the highest participation rates among the states, and I would enjoy speaking to other classes. If you are a teacher or school administrator whose students would be interested, just let me know.
These visits, along with field trips to the Capitol that thousands of students make each year, help bring to life the work we do at the state level and the impact our decisions have on them and their families.
Nationally, we have a lot to do when it comes to increasing our civic knowledge. According to a survey released this fall by the University of Pennsylvania, one-third of those questioned could not name any of the three branches of government and only a fourth could name them all. Another survey showed that half of those questioned did not know there are 100 U.S. senators.
To counter those types of statistics, Kentucky has taken several steps to strengthen our civic knowledge. Beyond the work teachers like Jenny are doing, Northern Kentucky University, Western Kentucky University and the University of Louisville have permanent departments focused on civic measures.
Kentucky also has had a lot of success in making state government easier to understand and follow online. The General Assembly’s website (lrc.ky.gov), for example, publicizes legislative meetings and the progress of bills and resolutions during legislative sessions, while other websites do such things as track state spending, help businesses cut through red tape and make it easier for citizens to register to vote.
That last one – GoVoteKy.com – began in March and has since been used by 40,000 citizens who either registered or updated their voting information. Of the nearly 13,000 new voters, more than 3,500 are 18-year-olds who will be able to vote during the general election on Nov. 8, according to the Secretary of State’s office. If you have not registered but would like to so you can vote that day, the deadline is Oct. 11. Beyond registration, the website also includes information about voting locations, sample ballots and how to sign up as a poll worker.
Overall, the 3.2 million Kentuckians who are registered tend to vote in numbers comparable to if not better than the national average. In 2014, our 45 percent voter turnout rate was ahead of every southern state and among the nation’s leaders, and in 2012, the last presidential election, our turnout rate was 56 percent.
Although not necessarily tied to our civic duties, a study the Secretary of State authorized five years ago noted some other positive areas where Kentuckians have developed strong social bonds. Only two states had a higher percentage of families who eat together during meals, for example, and we ranked 21st when looking at the percentage of people who do favors for their neighbors.
These are simple things, but the bonds we have with our family and neighbors play a major role when it comes to government. My goal is to build on these successes and see if we can get more citizens to be like the fifth graders I met last week. They are proof that we’re doing something right.
If you are an educator who would like to set up a meeting, or if you have any questions or concerns about state government, please let me know. My email is Greg.Stumbo@lrc.ky.gov, and you can leave a toll-free message for me at 800-372-7181. For those with a hearing impairment, the number is 800-896-0305.