The Democratic View: Door-to-Door Civics Lessons

By Kathy Zahler

Kathy Zahler

In New York state, high school seniors must take a course in Participation in Government and Civics. It is part of the core curriculum, and it provides useful information on the principles of American democracy, civil rights and civil liberties, duties of citizenship, political and civic participation, and public policy. Included within “political and civic participation” is a learning goal that states: “Engaged and informed citizens should know the mechanics associated with voting, including when major local, state, and national elections are held, how to register to vote, who currently holds each office, who is running for office, and what the central issues are pertaining to that election.”

That’s good stuff, but it doesn’t get down into the weeds of the political process, which explains why, as I go door-to-door with candidates’ petitions, I meet new people who are genuinely surprised.
“Wait, I have to sign this in order to vote?” (No.)
“What if I decide I don’t want to vote for this person?” (Signing a petition does not commit you to anything. It is just a means of getting certain candidates onto the ballot.)
“Can’t I sign for him and for her?” (Not if they are both running for the same seat.)

For a lot of otherwise savvy adults, signing a petition is how you register your dislike for something or get an already-elected representative to do something you want. You sign petitions to resist climate change or to increase the minimum wage. Signing petitions to get candidates on the ballot seems… strange.
I spend more time than I should at doors explaining the political process. I don’t mind doing it, but it often seems regrettably overdue. I’d rather be teaching 18-year-olds than 40-year-olds.

Instead of using petitions, several towns in Tompkins County use the caucus – a sort of old-fashioned town meeting – to select candidates. On June 19, my town committee hosted a caucus to get Dryden town candidates onto the ballot. More than 70 people showed up, many of them new to the caucus process.
Luckily, in a caucus, the rules actually require you to explain the rules as you go along. So despite the newcomers, things went well, and I don’t think anyone was confused. It was lively, and sometimes a little contentious, but in the end, we had four candidates to put forward in November.

If anyone works with high school juniors and seniors, and would like me to come talk about these arcane but essential elements of the electoral process – in an entirely nonpartisan way, of course – shoot me an email at I’m serious! My goal is never to have to explain things to grownups again. (But if I have to, of course, I will – I consider it one of my most useful duties as a committee member.)

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Assuming that all goes well with petitions, we now have candidates for town positions in Caroline, Ithaca, and Lansing, and we have city candidates for all five city wards:
First Ward: Incumbent Cynthia Brock
Second Ward: Incumbent Seph Murtagh
Third Ward: Incumbent Donna Fleming
Fourth Ward: Incumbent Graham Kerslick
Fifth Ward: Incumbent Deborah Mohlenhoff
Caroline: Incumbents Mark Witmer (town supervisor), John Fracchia and Calvin Snow (town board)
Ithaca: Incumbents Rich DePaolo, Tee-Ann Hunter and Pat Leary (town board) and James Salk (town justice)
Lansing: New candidates Walaa Maharem-Horan and Joseph Wetmore (town board)
And here are the results of our first caucus of the year:
Dryden: Incumbents Jason Leifer (town supervisor), Dan Lamb and Kathy Servoss (town board), and Rick Young (highway superintendent)
Keep track of caucuses in other towns by checking our calendar of events at
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As you make plans for Independence Day celebrations, consider testing yourself (or your kids) against the USCIS list of questions for aspiring U.S. citizens. Shouldn’t we all get a perfect score? Happy Fourth! Find the list at
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Kathy Zahler is Director of Communications for the Tompkins County Democratic Committee.