Can we talk about voting? (for something other than American Idol)

As the country examines the tone of political dialogue, Alison Young provides a regular commentary under the title “Can We Talk? A Conversation about Civility and Democracy in America” exploring the current state of public discourse and civility in American politics.

Each week, Ryan Seacrest proudly boasts of the “over 40 million votes” viewers cast for the American Idol finalists. And this number will surely increase as this season’s finals progress. People of all ages are excited – we’re talking about American Idol in schools, with our neighbors and at the water coolers. We care. We’re engaged. We vote. We’re involved. But when it comes to voting in elections for those that will lead our communities, our states and our country, we’re uninterested.

This week, the National Constitution Center released the Pennsylvania Civic Health Index, an annual report measuring a number of civic habits including voting, volunteering, and community connectedness. The study is a partnership with the Center for Democratic Deliberation at Penn State University and the National Conference on Citizenship.

Taken collectively, the behaviors highlighted in the report indicate how well we’re preserving our republic – the citizen-centered democracy our founders envisioned. And the news isn’t great.

Even with a pivotal presidential primary election nearing on April 24 and the 2012 presidential campaign in full swing, the Civic Health Index reveals that Pennsylvania’s citizens are less politically engaged than citizens in virtually every other part of the country. In fact, Pennsylvania ranks dead last in the nation in the percent of citizens who talk frequently about politics with friends and family. Compared with other states, Pennsylvania ranks 33rd in voter registration, and 35th in voter turnout. As a state, we’re faced with a challenging political engagement deficit.

Pennsylvania is the birthplace of American democracy, and the foundation of our republic is active citizen participation. Perhaps, if Ryan Seacrest were running for president, we’d be more inclined to show up at the polls. But given the current state of our economy, rising unemployment rates, decreasing graduation rates and important policy debates over health care, foreign policy and immigration, We the People have a critical role to play in our communities and our nation as a whole.

The Civic Health Index is a rallying cry for all citizens to get engaged and get involved. And to prove that yes, we can talk about voting for something other than American Idol.

Alison Young is the Vice President of Public Engagement at the National Constitution Center.

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