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Civic Ed

Ballot measures are good democracy — but only if you can understand them

Marginal improvements have been made to help voters understand the questions posed to them on the ballot this November, a new study concludes, but such ballot measures still favor the college-educated — who represent a minority of the U.S. population.

This year voters in eight states will decide the fate of a collective 36 such propositions. In a study released Thursday, Ballotpedia assessed how easy it is to comprehend what each proposal would accomplish, concluding that the difficulty level had decreased compared with the referendums decided in the last off-year election of 2017 — but not by much.

In fact, according to a pair of well-established tests, 21 of the 36 ballot measures cannot be understood by the 40 percent of the voting-age population who never attended college.

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Sara Swann/The Fulcrum

Numbers don't lie: Copies of the Constitution are selling at a record pace

Civic education has disappeared? Print is no longer the best way to consume important information? Try persuading nearly a million people who have purchased copies of the Constitution in the past four years — at a record-setting pace.

Donald Trump's presidency, and the persistent challenges to democratic norms and the separation of federal powers it has spawned, sure seem to be the reason.

"There have been some other smaller spikes in Constitution sales in recent history — such as 2010, following the 2009 founding of the Tea Party," said Kristen McLean, a publishing industry analyst for the market research and retail sales tracking firm NPD Group Inc. "That spike is dwarfed by what we have been seeing since these last few years. Regardless of your political affiliation, there is no doubt that our current political climate has done wonders for constitutional engagement."

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Big Picture

The partisan divide is getting worse

How bad is the partisan division in this country?

Roughly half or more Republicans and Democrats believe members of the other party are more "closed-minded" and "unpatriotic" than other Americans, according to a new survey by Pew Research Center. Nearly two-thirds of Republicans see others as unpatriotic, while only 23 percent of Democrats feel that way.

The survey, which was conducted in early September and before Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced plans to pursue an impeachment inquiry against President Trump, revealed a growing animosity that has festered since Pew last conducted a similar survey three years ago.

Compared to the 2016 survey, the share of partisan Americans who believe the other side is closed-minded or immoral has spiked, with double-digit increases in the percentage of Republicans who believed Democrats were "more closed-minded" and Democrats who said Republicans were "more immoral" than other Americans.

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"When people are unaware that convictions can seem principled while actually being blind, they are helpless in the face of the conviction machine," writes Michael Patrick Lynch.

‘Always sticking to your convictions’ sounds like a good thing – but it isn’t

Lynch is a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut.

There is nothing wrong with strong opinions. They are healthy in a democracy – an apathetic electorate is an ineffective electorate.

But a curious fact about American society's supercharged political culture is that even the most humble debates (think: Which fried chicken sandwiches are best?) turn a tweet into matters of conviction.

The result is that many of us come to see criticism as intolerable and disagreement with our opinions as a mark of moral inferiority.

That's a problem not just because it can lead to incivility; it's a problem because it can lead to dogmatism, and when it comes to matters like climate change or immigration, even violent fanaticism.

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