Teaching the 2016 Election: A Constitution Day Primer

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

We interrupt our Teaching the 2016 Election series to celebrate Constitution Day, September 17. Public schools and universities and even federal agencies are legally obligated to provide programming around the Constitution on this day, recognized on Friday this year as it falls on a weekend.

As a classroom teacher, I remember being offended that Congress thought the Constitution could be packaged into a single day, as every day was Constitution Day for me and my students. A decade later, I’m encouraged by the annual celebration across grades, classrooms, and campuses, and that so many of you weave the Constitution into your daily doings.

There is certainly no shortage of Constitution Day resources as every civic education organization under the sun seizes its fifteen minutes of fame, so I thought it might be helpful to make a few constitutional connections to the 2016 Election.

Article I establishes our legislative branch and calls for bi-annual elections where every member of the House of Representatives and one-third of Senators face voters. Specific to this election, where party control of the Senate is very much in question, the Senate’s authority to ratify treaties and confirm Supreme Court appointments rise to the fore.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership Treaty is opposed by both Clinton and Trump, but favored by President Obama and many Republicans. Moreover, the nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court looms over this election given Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s contention that the winner should pick Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement.

The Electoral College is specified in Article II, a subject we’ve already addressed at length, but amendments dealing with the vice presidential selection (12th) and presidential succession (25th) come to the fore given the advanced age of our current candidates and lingering health concerns. It’s also interesting to contemplate whether President Obama would be re-elected if not for term limits (22nd Amendment).

The Article III implications of this election extend once more to the Supreme Court vacancy and potential paralysis on important decisions where the Justices split 4-4. A deadlocked Court then defers to lower court rulings, the latter applying only to states within their jurisdiction.

The 2016 Election has consequences for many of our civil liberties and constitutional amendments. More specifically the 14th Amendment has been a campaign issue with Donald Trump’s questioning of the wisdom of the birthright citizenship it guarantees.

We’ll return next week with a closer look at state elections in Illinois, but wish you a Happy Constitution Day as we celebrate the #CivicsIsBack campaign.

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