Contributed by Victoria Dinov, New Voters Communications Intern
Voting is one of the most important rights and responsibilities that U.S. citizens are granted. The voting process was designed to elect legislators by and for the people. According to research gathered by the U.S. Census through the Current Population Survey (CPS), the voting rates of 18- to- 24-year-olds has dramatically decreased since 1964, dropping from 50.9 percent to 38 percent by 2012. These dropping voting rates have led to increasingly lower youth representation in politics, along with a sharp decline in conventional youth civic engagement. This decline has also been observed in the difference between youth voting in presidential and nonpresidential election years. A significant drop in youth who reported voting in 2014 (16%) was seen in comparison to youth who reported voting in the 2016 presidential election year (39%).
The dropping rates in youth voting have serious implications for our future. How youth vote now will substantially affect their lives in years to come, including college tuition reform, healthcare, and federal job programs. If the youth decline to represent themselves through voting, they will not be able to influence the outcomes of many of the programs that will affect their future lives. Young voters also have a unique position of power in numbers, accounting for 30% of the electorate (compared to Gen X which makes up 25% of the population and the Silent Generation which comprises 13% of the population). With the power of representing nearly a third of the electorate, youth voters have the potential to greatly influence the outcomes of an election, and thus greatly represent their own political interests.
The youth now face structural and mental barriers when it comes to voting. These include complicated rules when it comes to requesting absentee ballots, lack of confidence in the value of their votes, and an overall lack of resources and education on the voting process. Teaching the youth how the voting process works and the ins-and-outs of becoming an informed voter is an essential factor in increasing youth voting engagement. It is also important to teach youth that their vote really does matter and that each vote they cast makes a difference in the voting process.
Benefits of Youth voting
Many youth voters struggle with appreciating the value of their votes. For many, it seems like their vote becomes lost in the wind, or that it doesn’t make a difference in the election. These misconceptions must be torn down, as youth civic engagement is actually quite critical to preserving our democracy.
There are many benefits to youth voting, the first being that it allows young people to establish meaningful civic engagement to make sure their needs and rights are recognized and enforced. In an extensive document on youth political participation, the United Nations recalls that voting allows students to be included in the democratic process, and thus ensure the achievement of a refreshed development agenda and new development goals. In its research on countries emerging from conflicts, the UNDP recognized that young people can engage in peacebuilding, leading non-violent revolutions, and using new technologies to create widespread social change.
Engaging the youth can occur in many ways, and can bring the perspectives of younger generations to the table. One way to reach out to civically engaged youth is to establish youth councils or other structures for youth leadership that would allow youth to be represented in their communities. This would catalyze engagement efforts and bring about more youth civic engagement that could later translate to increase youth voting rates. This sort of method was tested in Ferguson, Missouri. The Ferguson Youth Initiative (FYI) was established as a combined group of city officials, Ferguson youth, and educators to find methods to better accommodate the needs of young people in the community. The goal of this group was to develop a system of informing youth on available programs, developing a network of resources for youth, and collaborating to strengthen the youth network. This initiative helped establish a longstanding relationship between youth and their city representatives and allowed for the conversation surrounding youth interests to take a more front-and-center place in citywide initiatives.
How to teach civic learning in schools
Understanding the benefits of civic learning are essential to promoting civic education in our schools today. For many youth, the educational barriers to voting bar them from fully participating in the election process. Thus, engaging youth in the election process during high school will prepare them to be frequent and informed voters in the future.
One important benefit of improving civic learning is the ability to address our democratic shortfalls. In a Youth Civic Leaders Summit in 2012, three main democratic shortfalls were named: lack of informed citizens, lack of full disclosure from the media, and lack of voting resources to every citizen. These three issues could be addressed by increased civic learning as students could become more educated on policies and legislation through civics courses. These newly-informed students could demand media transparency and increase public discourse, while also becoming equipped with the tools to become full participants in the democratic election process.
To create more informed youth voters, schools must adopt curriculum that targets competence in civic and political engagement. This curriculum would aim to supplement students’ knowledge and skill of the voting process, while also allowing them to form their own values and attitudes. The curriculum should be unbiased, allowing students to act as critical thinkers to formulate their own positions and empowering them to make informed voting decisions. This curriculum should emphasize knowledge of politics, critical thinking, civic-mindedness, civic responsibility, and understanding the value and role of democracy in our country. To achieve these goals, the curriculum should comprehensively teach students how and where to locate polls, how to cast their ballots and where to find information on candidates and policies. In addition to this rudimentary voting teaching, the curriculum should also enrich its teachings by bringing in bipartisan speakers to attest to the importance of the voting process and explain the role of elections in the government throughout history.
In a Q&A session with John Holbein, the assistant professor of public policy and education at the University of Virginia, the inefficiencies of our current civic education were stressed by a chart on youth voting that showed that most civics classes in the United States had little to no effect on students’ later voting. These inefficiencies were largely a product of, as assistant professor Holbein said, “[teachers] who felt safer in the realm of teaching historical things, teaching things that you could memorize and regurgitate.” Thus, our lack in proper civic engagement and education was also a product of the teacher’s fear of discussing controversial topics and engaging in contemporary political debate that could potentially lead to parents and students complaining. One way to avoid this problem is to follow in the footsteps of the First-Time Voter program, which is a one-time demonstration in classrooms that provides youth with practical knowledge on the voting process and focuses on the nuts and bolts of voting itself. This program also encouraged young people to register and helped simulate the registration process.
Another way to increase civic understanding is to host mock elections. Community High School in Chicago partners with the League of Women Voters to host these kinds of mock elections, equipped with real voting machines and voter information guides with candidates’ biographies and policy statements. The school also places heavy emphasis on voting during election years, hosting school Debate Watching Parties.
With all of these methods and more, it is important that our civic education expands its scope and begins to incorporate contemporary voting education to benefit students in their voting process. This will create more engaged and informed voters, and will allow youth voters to better represent their interests through politics.
How society and politics have been affected by more youth voters
When considering the benefits of youth voting and the methods to increase youth participation, it is also important to note how society is positively affected by more youth voters.
Across the country, many local city and county leaders have discovered that the youth of their cities are great assets. These youth are working with elected officials to tackle important issues of local government. Working with local officials has allowed youth to discover their voice and use it in matters of importance to youth in their communities. The stronger youth voice in the local decision-making processes has made communities better places to live. The partnerships have also allowed young people to focus on more than predominantly “youth issues,” such as school safety and school opportunities, and instead branch out to other youth issues of importance such as gun violence and green development plans. These youth efforts have led to budget savings, wiser policy choices, and increased support for city decisions.
Increased youth political engagement is also closely correlated with increased youth civic engagement. This has created a trend in which more youth participate in community service activities and work within their communities to make them better places. This increased engagement has also prompted students to utilize alternate resources to express their voices, such as through marching, petitioning, and organizing on the national level. This further benefits the community and allows youth to more actively advocate for their needs and interests.
The many benefits of youth civic engagement to society and the representation of youth interests calls many schools to action to make voting education a priority in schools. With increased knowledge on the voting process, students can become lifelong, informed voters. This can later translate into an increased engagement in community service and alternate political engagement, and can bring the civic responsibility of voting to the next level.
Schools have an important responsibility now: the responsibility to create a new generation of educated and civic-minded students that can advance the ideals of democracy and fully participate in the civic actions provided to every citizen.