Have you signed up for The Educator’s Room Daily Newsletter? Click here and support independent journalism!
Every two to four years, we hear about the need to register young people to vote. Pundits bemoan the low turnout numbers that we see from 18 to 25-year-olds. Experts hypothesize about why they do not choose to exercise their constitutional right to have a say in their elected leaders. And older citizens just go on about “kids these days.”
As someone who has spent the last 20-plus years with this age group and finds every opportunity to mention the importance of participating in democracy, I try to stay away from critiquing the kids themselves.
Instead, I spend a lot of time thinking about what we can do as educators. We need to ensure our students understand the importance of voting and enable them to participate in selecting the leaders making life-changing decisions for them on a regular basis. After all, it’s local elections that impact them the most, something I wish I had understood when I was 18. I didn’t vote until I was 21 because I believed that the only thing that mattered was presidential elections. But, in fact, it’s in local elections that we see just how much our vote can matter.
If our job as educators is to prepare our students for citizenship, then educating our students about how and why to vote must be a priority.
The Time to Participate in Democracy is Now
Organizations such as Rock the Vote and Campus Vote Project have done important work in getting college students around the country registered to vote at least every four years. Their work seems obvious because every American citizen attending a college or university should be old enough to cast a ballot in their state.
Even so, about a quarter of high school students around the country are eligible to vote in every election. Our oldest students deserve to participate in democracy as soon as they are eligible. Once they graduate, many students will not attend college immediately following high school graduation. Instead, they will head off to the military and trades, careers significantly impacted by state and national policy.
This is why it is important to know that more than half of all states require schools to either provide students with registration forms or help them to register. Regardless of your state’s policy (or whether your district complies), educators should take the lead and help their students register to vote. Start a civics club that helps students register to vote during school hours. Put National High School Voter Registration Week on the calendar and participate every year. Do a social media series of student selfies with the “I voted” sticker. Registering our students shows them that we believe their voice matters.
Are Your Students Registered to Vote? Click To Tweet
Voter Registration and Voting Can Be Confusing
But registering students is only one step. Not all of those who attend college will be attending college in their home state. I was one of those students. I didn’t understand how absentee ballots for Michigan worked and didn’t know if I was doing it correctly. I wasn’t aware of the deadlines for requesting my ballot and delivering it to a Nebraska post office. Students who are attending college and will not be able to return home need help understanding how they can still vote.
Our students also do not realize that there is more at stake than who is going to be president. If they vote, they get to select school board members, sheriffs, judges, city council members, and much more. Some of these races can be decided by double-digit vote counts. Many of our students may take government or civics courses after an election has already passed. Providing multiple opportunities for them to see a ballot, research candidates, and practice the process can help them see the impact that their vote can have beyond student council elections. There are several organizations that can help teachers and students prepare for this process, including My School Votes and the League of Women Voters.
Voting Gives Education a Real-World Purpose
Do they care about climate policy after learning about Climate Change in Biology? Local officials can be the first roadblock or pathway to changing local business practices, improving public transportation, and increasing recycling options. Do they have health concerns? They can help select state officials that will set policies that will improve their personal outcomes. Do they care about their own education and the educational future of their siblings? They can have a hand in selecting school board members who will work to improve outcomes for local education instead of stunting progress.
The truth is that most of our students are closer to many of the issues facing our country than their parents or grandparents because it directly impacts them. Despite the confusion of adults, our students have been using “new math” for years and understand its place in educational policy. When the Parkland shooting happened in 2018, the school’s AP, mass media, and speech and debate students decided to use what they were learning to raise awareness about gun violence and mass shootings. Some of them are still actively involved in politics and appear to have bright futures. And recently, thousands of Virginia high school students walked out of their buildings to protest the governor’s trans proposals. They saw how those policies could affect their friends and classmates and made their voices heard the only way that they could, for now.
While the voter registration date has passed in many states (deadlines can be found here), it is not too late to implement strategies that prepare students for voting in the future. It starts with showing them the impact of midterm elections as they are happening in our states and around the country and should be a regular discussion every two years. If you live in an area with an off-year election, you can use that as a teachable moment as well. And you can do all of this without ever mentioning a political party or personal preference. Teaching always has been a political act, even if we know that particular students will not vote the way we would prefer.
Students who learn about the voting process and receive practical instruction while in high school are more likely to become engaged voters. If we educators want to teach our students how to be active citizens that are going to make their world better, we need to give them the training to make that a possibility.
Editor’s Note: If you enjoyed this article, please become a Patreon supporter by clicking here.