Learning to Vote

by Carol Kocivar | October 14, 2019 | 0 Comments
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A Generational Obligation

Children are not born with a Democracy Gene. It is the responsibility of each generation to prepare children to be responsible citizens.

Today’s headlines reinforce why this is so important. Whether it is a presidential primary or decisions on how we fund our schools, our votes determine what happens in our nation, our state and our local communities.

Schools play a critical role in educating children for democracy. In fact, a core purpose of public education is to teach children how to be good citizens.

Young People Are Underrepresented in California

California’s young adults (those under 26) account for nearly 14 percent of the state’s eligible voter population, but they tend to be weak participants in elections. They register at lower rates than older Californians. Those who register are less likely than older Californians to cast their ballot. In the 2018 general election, for example, although the youth registration rate reached 62 only 28 percent of those who registered actually voted, amounting to a mere 7.6 percent of voters. (Source: Assembly floor analysis of AB773, 9/4/2019)

What Kids Should Learn in School about Voting

California requires one course in American government as a high school graduation requirement. It covers the basics of voting:

“As a practical matter, students should know how to register to vote—both online and by mail—what the requirements are for registration; how to request, fill out, and return an absentee ballot; what to expect on election day; how to find a polling place; and where and how to access and understand the voter information pamphlet and other materials to become an informed voter.”
California History Social Science Frameworks

The curriculum, of course, covers a lot more than the logistics of voting. In high school, for example, it encourages discussion of controversial issues relating to democracy.

Discussion Examples from the Curriculum Framework (PDF)

Do citizens have rights that the state must respect, and if so what are they?

What is the role of civil dissent and when is it necessary?

Why have some revolutions been followed by purges of dissidents, mass arrests of political opponents, murder of “class enemies,” suppression of free speech, abolition of private property, and attacks on religious groups?

Why do ordinary people risk their lives to flee or transform authoritarian states?

The Role of the State in Youth Voting

The State of California's chief election officer is the Secretary of State. The office plays a significant role in boosting voter registration and participation rates, including among young voters.

In California, voters can register with a simple form, on paper or online, up to 15 days before an election. (Even if you miss that date, you can still vote.) California’s online registration has increased youth voter registration. The chart below, from the Secretary of State, shows the huge difference in registration rates between paper and online. The flat green line below shows the paper registration rate. The red line going up, up, up, reflects online registration.

In California, young people don't have to wait until they are 18 to register to vote. Pre-registration for 16 and 17 year olds is available through California’s online voter registration application. It's a fairly new system, introduced in 2017. By the end of 2018, nearly 125,000 pre-registered students aged up and became registered voters. Starting in 2019, the state automatically pre-registers all eligible sixteen- and seventeen year olds to vote when they receive a California Driver’s License or California State I.D.

The Secretary of State encourages high schools to help students register, for example by adding the link https://registertovote.ca.gov to their school website, including it in parent/student newsletters, and promoting it in other materials.

Getting Students Involved

Student Poll workers learn how elections work

Starting at 16, high school students can learn how elections are run while they earn money as a student poll worker on Election Day. Depending on where you live, you may be eligible for a stipend ranging from $65 to $150. To find out what it takes to become a student poll worker and how to sign up, contact your county elections office. Los Angeles is a good example of how this program works.

California Mock Elections Activate Thousands of Students

In 2018, more than 200,000 students participated in the California Mock Election. Mock Elections help students understand the issues on the ballot and give them a chance to practice voting. (Term paper topic suggestion: The results of the 2018 Mock election are here. How did students' votes differ from the election results?) As a state general election approaches, your school can sign up to participate.

Civic Learning Award Recognizes Exemplary School Programs

The Civic Learning Award celebrates public schools' efforts to engage students in civic learning. Co-sponsored by the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court and the California State Superintendent of Public Instruction, the program also identifies models that can be replicated in other schools. Applications are due January 17, 2020. The California Courts also provide lesson plans and resources for schools.

What’s Next?

Over the past several years, the California legislature has expanded outreach and programs for students — from creating High School Voter Registration Week to giving 16 and 17 year olds the chance to pre-register.

These efforts seem to be working. In 2018, California saw a significant increase of student pre-registrations. The Secretary of State anticipates that these numbers will likely quadruple for the year 2020.

Starting in 2020, all counties in California will offer same-day registration at all polling places due to passage of Senate Bill 72. According to Senator Umberg, the author of the bill, the measure will help lower the obstacles to voting for the millions of eligible but unregistered voters in California. He notes that these should-be voters tend to be people of color, that they are disproportionately young, or poor, or disabled, and that they are more likely to be learning English.

There are other ideas to increase student participation, including lowering the statewide voting age to 17, making voting for the first time more formally a part of the path to adult responsibility. (For a bit of history on laws relating to voting ages, and some pros and cons, check this summary from PBS.)

How Parents and Schools Can Help: Some Basics

Encourage eligible students to register to vote on-line. One idea: Put this logo on your school and PTA website and link it to https://registertovote.ca.gov. Information is available online in English, Spanish, and many other languages.

Encourage 16 and 17 year olds to pre-register online.

Work on a voter registration drive. Consult with your local League of Women Voters.

Ask what your school administration is doing to promote civic learning. Is it participating in the Mock Elections? Has it applied for the Civic Learning Award? Are students volunteering to be poll workers? For more ideas, read this post in the Ed100 blog.

Does your school have a great program? Share what your school is doing with Ed100 readers in the comment section at the end of this blog.

Put These on Your Calendar

November 5, 2019

March 3, 2020

Election Day. The deadline* to register is 15 days earlier.

Presidential Primary. The deadline* to register is 15 days earlier.

*After these deadlines you can still vote, right up to election day, at your county elections office. Ask for a “conditional” ballot.

“If people don't vote, everything stays the same. You can protest until the sky turns yellow or the moon turns blue, and it's not going to change anything if you don't vote.”
Dolores Huerta

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