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Open Primaries

Gerrymandering. The primary voting system. The U.S. Electoral College.

These are just some of the problem areas with our system of choosing and electing those who represent us in each branch of government.

So ... what's wrong? Let's examine these three systems.

1. Gerrymandering is what happens when districts are divided up to favor one political party over another.

Also known as "redistricting," gerrymandering is when the incumbents who are in power after an election get to draw the boundary lines to make up districts of voters that benefit their own party. It's super hard to explain.


Frequently, it's used to concentrate ethnic, political, or religious blocks of people into defined districts. This then could mean that the districts around them become more dense with supporters of the incumbents or party in power.

Here's a very simple graphic to illustrate the concept — and how easy it is to make changes in districts that favor those who wish to stay in power:

Image by Steven Nass/Wikimedia Commons.

But it can also disenfranchise people in those districts. For example, let's say a district is 60% African-American, 20% Latino/Hispanic, and 20% Caucasian.

As you can see from the graphic, re-drawing the lines can mean voters lose out on the chance to have a representative and fair election in their "new" districts. They can be redrawn in ways that "spread out" the influence of those voters across other districts, so 60/40 split can be flipped to a 40/60 split, as you see in the graphic on the far right above.

Another pretty dramatic example, from Travis county in Austin, Texas:

Image by P. Henry/Wikimedia Commons.

In this case, the districts were redrawn to include counties that have historically much more conservative (Republican) bases, which watered down the votes from the city of Austin, known to be much more progressive/Democrat.

2. The primary system we use to choose candidates is also severely flawed.

What happens when a tiny fraction of possible voters get to choose who is actually running for office?

That's what inevitably happens in most state and federal elections across the country. If you're a registered Republican, you get to vote in the primaries for that party. Democrat? Same. But what if you're among the more than 40% of voters who are independent?

In many states, you have to actually register as a member of a party in order to vote in the primary.

If registering as a member of a party you don't necessarily agree with on many issues rubs you the wrong way, join the club. Millennials are increasingly opting out of our two-party system. It's something to consider when thinking about the pool of voters who choose our two dominant party candidates in presidential elections, for instance.

3. The Electoral College is something that is a holdover from when this country was still very young (1787, to be exact.)

Perhaps it's time to reconsider using it?

Popular vote by political party, 1788-2012. Image by ChrisnHouston/Wikimedia Commons.

Remember when the 2000 election was decided by the Electoral College and not by popular vote?

(You DO remember that, right? The Electoral College is what decided that election after the Florida recount. And recount. And recount.)

In that election, Al Gore received 540,000 more votes than George W. Bush in the popular vote. However, Bush won 271 electoral votes, and Gore, 266. Bush was, of course, declared the winner. The rest, as they say, is history.

The Electoral College basically means that representatives from each state are elected and pledge to cast their votes for president in a "winner take all" manner; that is, they pledge their votes for the presidential candidate who wins the popular vote in that state.

The number of members of the Electoral College is dependent on the number of House and Senate reps in each state; currently, if you include the District of Columbia, there are 538 total electors. The winner of the presidential race has to end up with a majority of those votes from electors in each state in order to be declared winner.

Some say this basically means the popular vote isn't what it's supposed to be: one person, one vote.

Others say that by eliminating the Electoral College and going to straight popular vote, candidates will ignore smaller "swing" states and focus on population centers.

These are the problems, but are there any solutions? Maybe!

Some folks are working to change some of these problems. For example, some want to change our primary system so the top two vote-getters in the primary, regardless of party, are the two who are on the final ballot. It's called an "open primaries" system, and it's already being used in at least a few states and most municipal elections.

Here's a video from FairVote, and they're working toward that and a bunch more ways to change things for the better. (Plus, it's headed by none other than the bassist for Nirvana (!), Krist Novoselic.) Check it out:

Courtesy of Elaine Ahn

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Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

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Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

Photo from Upworthy Library

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