Learning to Vote

by Carol Kocivar | September 8, 2023 | 0 Comments
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A generational responsibility

Children are not born with a Democracy gene. It is the responsibility of each generation to prepare children to be responsible citizens. Schools play a critical role in this process — in fact, a core purpose of public education is to teach children how to be good citizens.

California High School Voter Education Weeks: September 17 through September 30, 2023.

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

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, such as these:

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 chief election officer for the state of California 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. Actually, even if you miss that date, you can still vote using a provisional ballot. California’s online registration has dramatically increased youth voter registration. The chart below, from the Secretary of State, shows the huge differences in student voter registration rates between paper and online. The flat orange line below shows the paper registration rate. The gray line reflects online registration. Note the temporary dip in registrations during the pandemic. (You can find the percentage of California voters by age in 2022 here.)

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. Under the state's Motor Voter system, 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.

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 to vote at lower rates than older Californians. Those who do register are less likely than older Californians to cast their ballot.

According to research by the CIRCLE program at Tufts University, low youth participation in voting is not just a California problem. In the 2022 election, participation among California voters younger than 30 declined by 8.2 percentage points, to 22.1% of those eligible to vote, whether registered or not. This decline matched national voting patterns. California ranked 17th among the states in youth voter participation in 2022.

Getting students involved

By definition, each year's young voters are new voters. Elections happen only occasionally, so it is challenging to build and sustain ongoing programs that effectively set the stage for young people to participate in them. California, like other states, has been struggling to develop programs that address this challenge. Below are some of them.

High School Voter Education Weeks: The California Education Code designates the last two full weeks in April and September as High School Voter Education Weeks. This gives schools and students the opportunity to partner with county elections officials to promote civic education and participation and foster an environment that cultivates lifelong voters and active citizens.

The Secretary of State and the Superintendent of Public Instruction have jointly provided a menu of resources to kick this off.

Excused absences: Students in grades 6 to 12 are eligible to receive one excused absence a year to participate in a political or civic event, provided the student notifies the school prior to the absence. This became law with the passage of Senate Bill 955 (2022).

Poll workers: Starting at age 16, high school students can earn money while learning how elections are run by serving 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. (For example, Los Angeles has a well-developed plan.)

Mock Elections: In 2022, more than 35,000 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 2022 Mock election are here. How did students' votes differ from the election results?)

Civic Learning Award: The Civic Learning Award celebrates public schools that effectively 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.

California Students Vote Project: California was the first state to build partnerships across the state’s major higher education systems to empower students to participate in the democratic process. The California Students Vote Project aims to increase college student voter education, voter registration, and outreach. The program hosts civic engagement events, creates educational resources, and partners with campuses and outreach organizations. A student voter resource guide provides important voting dates as well as sample email messages, voter education graphics, and a voter checklist.

College Bowl: The California University and College Ballot Bowl is a friendly biennial competition among higher education systems: which will register the most college students to vote? Ready for a quiz? Which university won the college bowl in 2022? No clues. You have to search for the answer.

Empowerment Act: The Student Civic and Voter Empowerment Act requires each California Community College and California State University campus, and requests each University of California campus, to take the following actions:

  • Distribute, in consultation with the California Secretary of State, campus wide emails to all students with specified voting- and election-related dates and information, and to include specific dates on all print and online academic calendars.
  • Post on social media reminders to students of specified voter-related dates and information.
  • Designate one person per campus as the Civic and Voter Empowerment Coordinator with specified responsibilities, including developing a Civic and Voter Empowerment Action Plan.

How parents and schools can help: Some basics

Encourage eligible students to register to vote online.

One idea: Make voter education an ongoing activity of your PTA. Put this logo on your school and PTA websites and link it to https://registertovote.ca.gov.

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

Join or create 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 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 that helps convert high school students into active voters? Share what your school is doing with Ed100 readers in the comment section at the end of this blog post.

Posted September 2023
Previous version: August 2017

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