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We are the people

Sept. 17 was Constitution Day. Do you know where your government is?

Sept. 17 was Constitution Day. Do you know where your government is?

September 18, 2007|By TERESA GILBERT

Many young people - well, and Americans in general - don't know what the U.S. Constitution says. At the same time, it isn't shocking news that young adults vote less than all the other voting age groups. Why is this? Could there be a correlation?

The Constitution states that the U.S. president must be at least 35 years old. When I spoke to Leo Asad, a world history and government teacher at North Hagerstown High School, I asked him if he thought having a 35-year-old president might reinvigorate politics. He said that the president being 35 wouldn't be as reinvigorating as the fact that, most likely, young voters would be the ones who voted him in.

"That would reignite a flame in politics," he said. If more young people voted, "politicians would have to listen to them."

I asked Asad why more young people aren't voting. Could it be because they don't know, and they don't care that they don't know? And why should they care? How is voting relevant to teenagers? Asad's response was immediate: "Freedom of speech!"

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Freedom of speech - a right guaranteed in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This, needless to say, is most certainly relevant to everyone, young people included. Just consider the recent Supreme Court decision in the Morse v. Frederick case, aka the "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case. This case deals with a student who held a banner reading, "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" while outside of school but on a school-related trip. The student was suspended. The student objected, saying the Constitution guaranteed his freedom of speech. The Supreme Court ruled in the principal's favor.

The Constitution deals with what the government can and cannot do and states citizens' basic rights. According to the Constitution, the government of the United States of America is intended to be "of the people, by the people, and for the people," and the government should answer to you. So the question should be: How is that not relevant to everyone?

The 26th Amendment (passed in 1971) gives the right to vote to any citizen 18 years or older. And yet so few that are eligible exercise this right.

In 1972, the first year 18-year-olds could vote, 59 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds registered to vote and 50 percent did vote, according to Child Trends Data Bank (at www.childtrendsdata bank.org). In 2004, 42 percent of registered youth voted. Not great, but better than in 1996 or 2000, when only 32 percent voted.

The Constitution has granted young people this great power. But democracy doesn't just happen and is not guaranteed to continue into the future, Asad said.

"With awesome power comes awesome responsibility," he said. "Democracy is based on people who work toward it and believe in it, (and, if fewer people participate, it) could fail. 'The only thing evil needs to triumph is for good people to do nothing.'"

Our constitution-based democracy can fail if the people aren't taking up their responsibilities as citizens, which include voting, even though, as Asad pointed out, citizens do have the right to not participate.

"Question the government," Asad added, and could not emphasize this point enough. Questioning is very "constitutional," he said. In the constitution, the framers set up the government in three branches - the executive branch (the president and his or her administration); the legislative branch (Congress); and the judicial branch (the court system, with the Supreme Court at the top). Each branch can and should monitor and limit the other two and keep the power balanced between the three.

Or are there four branches to the U.S. government? Let the power of the people not be forgotten. Just as each branch checks on each other, the people should be checking on all three. The framers of the Constitution gave to citizens the power to sidestep Washington, D.C., and amend the Constitution.

Check out the full text of the Constitution at the U.S. House of Representatives Web site at www.house.gov/house/Educate.shtml.

With knowledge comes power. Knowing what the Constitution says will help in carrying out the responsibilities, duties, and rights of American citizens. Be knowledgeable. Be active. Be present.

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