The late Laura Wooten of Mercer County held the record as the longest serving poll worker in the United States, having volunteered at local, primary and general election polls for 79 years – without missing a vote – before she died in 2019 at the age of 98.
“Voting is your voice so if you don’t go out and vote for things, there will never be any changes,” Ms. Wooten told Princeton University in a 2018 interview. “That’s the only way you’ll get changes, is to vote. The privilege in a democracy of being able to vote means a lot to me. Some people use the excuse “My vote doesn’t count.” Well of course it’s not going to count if you don’t vote!”
Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) generally avoids allowing bills to carry the names of individuals, but this time proved an exception as his afternoon, the Senate Budget Committee unanimously passed S-854, otherwise known as “Laura Wooten’s Law.”
The bill would requires civics instruction in middle school, and authorizes the New Jersey Center for Civic Education to provide curricula, professional development and technical assistance for middle and high school civics. Senator Shirley Turner (D-15) of Lawrenceville serves as prime sponsor of the bill, and today rejoiced after it passed through committee.
“I was the one who decided to put her name on the legislation after she had passed,” Turner said of the late Laura Wooten. “Initially when I introduced the leg in 2018, I was trying to get more young people to turn out to vote because they are the lowest voting group that we have – the 18-24 year-olds. And I just believed if they could have civics in their high school and middle school they would be more likely to become more engaged and more actively involved in their government.”
A veteran member of the legislature and former long-serving chair of the Senate Education Committee, Turner acknowledged the timeliness of her bill within the civic cauldron of Jan. 6th, when then-President Donald J. Trump incurred his second impeachment by stirring his followers to stampede and desecrate the nation’s Capitol.
“I was shocked like everyone else and appalled,” Turner told InsiderNJ. “I could not believe my eyes, seeing what was taking place in our U.S. Capitol. I thought it was like watching a movie of a banana republic. I was dumbfounded that our own citizens would attack our capitol when the terrorists couldn’t do that on 911.
“Something is wrong with how we are educating people, when everybody is in different silos and totally divided,” added the Mercer-based senator. “Everybody is not being educated in high school or middle school; students are not receiving the kind of instruction they need to understand our government, the Constitution and how our government works; consequently people are acting out and doing things that will destroy our government.”
This legislation will help a generation coming behind us to have a vested interest, she argued.
Elizabeth C. Matto, associate research professor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the director of the Institute’s Center for Youth Political Participation, backs federal legislation on the same subject, otherwise known as the “Educating for Democracy Act” – now with a special urgency.
“The slow-building spectacle that erupted on Jan. 6 has a deeper cause though – the absence of a shared understanding of American democracy. And the only way to address this gap is through an investment in civic education,” Matto wrote last week in an NJ.com op-ed.
“In our nation’s schools, civic education has been disappearing from American classrooms and undervalued in relation to the STEM fields. When high-quality civic education is offered, it often isn’t offered equitably – with lessons in democratic citizenship going to predominantly white, higher-income, and college-bound young adults.”
Lamentably, New Jersey is one of ten states that do not have a concretized civic education in their curriculum. Dogged on this subject for years and now particularly anxious to see her bill come to fruition as it stands to go before the full legislature, Turner wants New Jersey to join the ranks of the more civically alert states in the union.
Laura Wooten would have been proud.
To see InsiderNJ’s FULL interview with the senator, please see below: