Last week, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed Laura Wooten’s Law. Named after a former University employee who was the longest continuously-serving poll worker in the United States, the legislation requires that all middle school students in the state receive instruction in civics.
Laura Wooten worked for 27 years in the Butler and Wilson College, now First College, dining halls. She volunteered as a poll worker in every election between 1939 and her death in 2019. Wooten was an advocate for the importance of civic engagement, especially among young people.
State Senator Shirley Turner, who represents portions of Mercer County, served as the primary sponsor of the bill and made the decision to name the legislation after Wooten after her death. The bill passed the State Senate and General Assembly unanimously earlier this year.
Laura Wooten’s Law instructs the New Jersey Center for Civic Education at Rutgers University to create civics curriculum for local school systems and provide professional development and technical assistance for middle and high school social studies teachers. New Jersey was previously one of only a few states that did not mandate civics education in middle school.
“By deepening civics instruction in middle school and high school, we are giving students the tools they need to be more engaged and informed citizens,” Governor Murphy said in a press release after signing the legislation on July 23.
“An understanding of civics strengthens our democracy by ensuring an understanding of the role that everyone plays in the future of their community, our state, and our nation,” Murphy added. “I am proud to sign this bill into law and honor Laura Wooten’s incredible civic legacy.”
Yvonne Hill, Wooten’s daughter, attended the bill signing ceremony on behalf of her family. In an interview with The Daily Princetonian, Hill discussed how the law continues her mother’s legacy of civic activism.
“I know she would be very pleased and honored as we are because one of the things she felt strongly about was young people being involved in the democratic process and especially voting,” Hill said.
“As she looked around over the 79 years, she could see people getting older as she was too, not being able to work the polls because of illnesses or people passing away. She said young people need to be more involved in this process,” Hill added.
Hill described her mother’s commitment to voting and serving as a poll worker. She said Wooten walked to the polls at 4:30 in the morning in 2017, even though her brother had passed away the day before.
“That just shows her tenacity and her perseverance and how much importance she put on voting, and not for any kind of honor or recognition,” Hill said.
When Hill asked her mother why she advocated for voting, Wooten said, “Don’t complain about things if you don’t vote, because if you don’t vote, how do you ever expect anything to change?”
Hope Perry ’24 testified in the New Jersey legislature in support of Laura Wooten’s Law after she rewrote a high school civics education bill that had previously failed in the state legislature. Perry sent her version to Turner, her state senator, and Turner’s office invited her to testify. In her testimony, she described the link between civic education and civic engagement.
“My argument was essentially, it does a disservice to not require civic education because it's empowering, because knowledge is power,” she said in an interview with the ‘Prince’. “It's empowering to people to be able to give them the tools that they need to ask questions and make proposals and have ideas and be involved.”
Perry is a Head Writer for Daybreak, a podcast from the ‘Prince’.
Although Perry never met Wooten, she is glad that the law recognizes Wooten’s history of civic engagement.
“For her to be recognized in this way is probably the best possible way to honor her, and we can keep honoring her by continuing to push for measures like this,” Perry said. “I didn't know her, but I just think it's really beautiful and I'm really glad that she's being recognized in the way she deserves.”
University spokesperson Jessica Fasano expressed the University’s excitement that Wooten was being honored through this law.
“We are delighted that Ms. Wooten’s incredible legacy of civic engagement has been recognized,” she wrote in an email to the ‘Prince.’
“She served as an inspiration for Princeton students, and we hope that she will now inspire generations of students across the state,” Fasano added.