Spring Lesson 2a: Becoming an Informed Voter: Preparing for the General Election

This lesson focuses on a voter’s need to be fully informed prior to casting a vote on Election Day and how to acquire the necessary information. Students learn what a yes or no vote or a decision to abstain means on a ballot. Students learn the definitions of amendment,initiative, and referendum. By completing the handouts for school referendums, students are given the opportunity to think critically and to learn firsthand why voters need to be fully informed about ballot questions.


Supplemental Materials

We the People: The Citizen & the Constitution student text correlations are offered as examples to use with Citizens, Not Spectators lessons when applicable. A comparable social studies textbook may be adapted for reference as needed.

The Citizens, Not Spectators high school curriculum correlates with the We the People, Level 3 text’s Unit Six, Lesson 33: “What does it mean to be a citizen?” (pp. 241–52), and Lesson 34: “What is the importance of civic engagement to American constitutional democracy?” (pp. 253–59).


Suggested Grade Level


High school (Grades 9–12)

Estimated Time to Complete


One to two class periods


Lesson Objectives

After completing this lesson, students will be able to

  • define the terms amendment, initiative, and referendum;
  • explain the concepts of majoritymajority rule, and minority rights;
  • understand what a yes or no vote or a decision to abstain means for each question on a ballot; and
  • understand why becoming an informed voter is necessary.




  • abstain
  • amendment
  • direct democracy
  • initiative
  • majority
  • majority rule
  • minority rights
  • popular sovereignty
  • referendum

Materials Needed

Teacher Resources


  • Quick Vocabulary (Teacher Resource 1)
  • Election ballot
  • Absentee ballot
  • Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide
    • The guides will contain information on the initiatives, referendums, or constitutional amendment questions for the upcoming election.

Student Handouts


  • Building Our Vocabulary (Student Handout 1)
  • School Referendum Questions (Student Handout 4)
  • School Referendum Information (Student Handout 5)
  • Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide (Student Handout 6)


Before the Lesson


  • Contact the registrar of voters’ office or visit your secretary of state’s website to obtain one copy of an election ballot and an absentee ballot, and a Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide (one copy for each student).
  • In preparation for Lesson 2, students have been assigned a review of a Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide (Student Handout 6) for homework.
  • Review and photocopy all Lesson 2 teacher resources and student handouts.

Lesson Procedure

1. What Does the Election Ballot Look Like?


The election ballot, absentee ballot, and the Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guide are required for this part of the lesson. Students will need Student Handout 1.


Show students the actual election ballot for the spring election. Explain that a voter needs to learn about the candidates running for office. Voters also must understand the ballot questions in order to cast an informed vote.

Ask students to recall whether a registered voter can still cast a ballot if they are not in their home community for the election.

  • Show students the absentee ballot for the spring election and explain that this type of ballot can be used. However, it must be completed and mailed by the deadline set by your state.
    • Ask the students why an absentee ballot must be completed ahead of time.
      • Students should reply that the ballots must be counted.

Explain that voters need to find information for everything on the ballot before they can cast an informed vote. That can be a lot of work, and not everyone has time to research all the information needed to be an informed voter.

Ask students to take out their homework assignment. Explain that the Quick Reference Guide or Voter Information Guides includes a lot of needed information to be an informed voter. Every registered voter receives one of these guides in the mail several months before the election. Both are also available on your secretary of state’s website. These guides allow voters to learn about the candidates, offices, and questions on the ballot before the election.

Inform students that they will be casting a vote for the candidates and questions on this ballot during the next Citizens, Not Spectators lesson, but first they need to learn how to become an informed voter.

2. Understanding Ballot Questions Classifications

Teacher Resource 1, Student Handout 1, and We the People, or a comparable social studies textbook, are required for this part of the lesson.

Ask students to take out their vocabulary lists (Student Handout 1) and tell them that new vocabulary is used when considering the ballot.


Inform the students that there are different classifications for the ballot questions that voters are asked to consider. Define the following terms for the students: amendment, initiative, and referendum.

Explain to students that initiatives are an example of direct democracy. Amendments, initiatives, and referendums are good examples of popular sovereignty.

  • Ask a student to define the term direct democracy (Student Handout 1).
  • Ask students whether voting is a form of direct democracy.
  • Ask a student to define the term popular sovereignty.
  • Instruct another student to read aloud some additional information about popular sovereignty from a preselected page in a social studies text. If your class is using We the People for this lesson, have the student read the explanations of popular sovereignty on pages 17 and 50.
    • Ask students if popular sovereignty is a form of direct democracy.

Ask students how many votes are needed to elect someone to office or pass ballot questions.

  • You can use the example of an election in which 1,000 votes are cast. Ask the students how many votes a candidate must receive to be elected.
  • Students might reply that a majority (501 votes) would be required to win.

Ask a student to define the terms majority and majority rule. Explain to the students the concept of minority rights. These terms are defined in Teacher Resource 1.

Add the definitions of amendment, direct democracy, initiative, majority, majority rule, minority rights, popular sovereignty, and referendum to the vocabulary chart. Have students add the definitions to Student Handout 1.


3. Introducing Ballot Questions: How Would You Vote?


Student Handout 4 is required for this part of the lesson.


The purpose of this part of the lesson is to show students that they must take the time to become informed voters and to make informed decisions on ballot questions. Students are asked to vote on several referendums on a school ballot. The information on the referendums is intentionally limited; however, ellipses indicate that more information is available.


Explain that the school is asking students to take a quick vote on several referendums under administrative consideration. Distribute Student Handout 4 and instruct the students to read the ballot and circle their choice (yes, no, or abstain) within five minutes so that results can be sent to the school’s administration as soon as possible. Explain what the term abstain means.

Immediately ask students to indicate how they voted by a show of hands. Keep a tally on the board. Ask a student at the back of the room to keep a separate running tally.

When all votes are cast and tallied, ask students the following questions.

  • Which questions received a majority vote?
    • How did decisions to abstain affect the result?
  • Why did they vote yes on a referendum?
  • Why did they vote no on a referendum?
  • If they did not vote, why did they choose to abstain?
  • How did they feel about being rushed through the process?

Compare your board tally with that of the student keeping a running tally at the back of the room.

  • Did you arrive at the same results?
  • If not, why might that have happened? What can be done about it now?


Add the definition of the term abstain to the vocabulary chart. Have students add the definition to Student Handout 1. 


4. Critical Thinking Exercise: Can I Change My Vote?

Distribute Student Handout 5 and ask the class to read it. Then ask them the following questions:

  • What did they really vote for or against?
  • Would they change their minds now if they could? Why?
  • Would those who had abstained from voting cast a vote now? If so, how might this have changed the outcome?
  • Did the terms majority rule and minority rightsplay a role in this ballot?
    • You may need to expand the definition of minority rights for the students.
    • Were any minority rights violated?
  • What have they learned about voting and the voting process?
    • The key response should be that they need to know more about what they are voting on and take more time to vote.
    • Students should also question the process itself. They might say that the vote should have been a secret ballot.

The activity students just completed should lead them to the idea that knowledge is a key to voting and that they need to be informed voters if they want to make a positive impact.

5. Concluding the Lesson: Can We Exercise Direct Democracy?


Ask students what they have learned about voting on ballot questions.

Ask a student to read the definitions of initiative and referendum.

Ask students whether the lesson’s voting exercise involved an initiative or referendum.

  • Students should answer that the ballot was more like a referendum because the school administration created the questions. This is similar to a legislative body placing proposed legislation on a ballot for approval by voters.

Remind students that during the next Citizens, Not Spectators lesson (Lesson 3a) they will be given the opportunity to vote on the ballot and questions.

6. Homework Assignment

Students should review the ballot information that they have gathered and make a decision about how they want to vote on each office and ballot issue.


CCE LogoThis site is brought to you by the Center for Civic Education. The Center's mission is to promote an enlightened and responsible citizenry committed to democratic principles and actively engaged in the practice of democracy. The Center has reached more than 30 million students and their teachers since 1965. Learn more.

Center for Civic Education

5115 Douglas Fir Road, Suite J
Calabasas, CA 91302

  Phone: (818) 591-9321

  Email: web@civiced.org

  Website: www.civiced.org

© Center for Civic Education