People often tell you it’s important to be an informed citizen, but you’re not sure what that means. Elections confuse you, and terms such as “gerrymandering” and “electoral college” don’t mean much to you. While you shouldn’t be embarrassed about your lack of political knowledge, it’s time to wise up with these five easy steps.
1. Join Political Groups
A great way to learn about the American governmental system and become excited about politics is to join a political group. Some of these are targeted towards achieving a particular goal, such as eliminating private healthcare or reforming the public school system. Others promote a candidate who is running for office. If you don’t feel strongly about one issue or politician, consider joining a group such as No Labels, which is a nonpartisan organization dedicated to fixing government corruption and gridlock. This group is a good fit if you want to lessen the national debt and address issues such as Social Security, renewable energy, and unemployment.
Regardless of which group you join, make an effort to engage with other informed citizens. Their dedication to their involvement in the political system will inspire you to continue your civic education.
2. Read the Newspaper
It may seem simple, but reading the newspaper every day is one of the best ways to become an informed citizen. When you stay informed about current events, you don’t have to worry about catching up on complicated political situations, and you’re not surprised by politicians’ actions. Whether you have a newspaper delivered to your house or you read the news on an app, it’s important to pay for your news. That way, you support independent journalists, who are more likely to give you unbiased news than sources run by political action coalitions.
3. Vote in Every Election
Presidential elections attract everyone’s attention years before they even happen thanks to debates, ads, and rallies. However, elections happen much more frequently than every four years. In between each presidential election is a midterm election, when you vote for senators and representatives whose terms are up. Watch for news about local elections for your town’s city council representatives and mayor. These often align with general and midterm elections, but you should also look out for emergency elections to fill vacancies left by illness or death.
Not only should you vote in every election, but you should also vote for all the positions. For example, during presidential elections, senators, representatives, county officials, and judges also appear on your ballot. Don’t skip these candidates, since they determine your region’s political climate. Finally, educate yourself about less prominent politicians long before you go to the polling station or mail your absentee ballot since this information is often harder to find.
4. Fact-Check Your Sources
Informed citizens share their knowledge with other people, but before they do so, they ensure that what they’re sharing is true. Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to find articles online that are based on rumors or pure fabrication. When you read an article that makes extreme claims or has a sensational headline, evaluates its credibility. Who is listed as the author, and does he or she have other articles on reputable websites? Who was interviewed for the article? What institutions, studies, or researchers does the author cite? If you’re still not sure about the article’s credibility, do a quick Google search for the article’s news. Unless the information is brand-new, it should appear on other reputable websites. To avoid spreading misinformation, you should only believe or share online news articles after taking these steps.
5. Learn About Your Rights
If you already follow the news carefully, perhaps you need to learn some history. No one will call you an informed citizen unless you’re aware of your rights, which you can find in the Constitution. This document, which was signed in 1787, details all the actions the United States’ government can take and which ones are forbidden. By reading the entire Constitution, you learn about each branch of the government’s rights and responsibilities. If you don’t have a lot of free time, read the amendments first, which explain rights such as freedom of the press and freedom of religion.
You should also learn about major Supreme Court cases to understand your rights. Because the Constitution was written so long ago, sometimes it’s not clear if someone’s rights have been violated. When lower courts can’t make a conclusive decision, they send a case to the Supreme Court, which makes a final decision. The right to burn flags as a sign of protest, have an abortion and hear your rights prior to a police interrogation all come from Supreme Court cases.
Once you start becoming an informed citizen, you realize that learning about your role in the country is a lifestyle, not a process. Still, use these five steps as your starting point.