Promoting Civic Engagement in Students Through Voting

Schools can become active agents in helping kids learn the importance of exercising their fundamental right and responsibility to vote. Learn grade-level strategies to incorporate in your school—and what the law says about efforts to promote civic engagement.

Topics: Curriculum and Instruction, Student Engagement

After retiring from the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice David Souter took on the project of reinserting civics education in American public education. At a forum discussion in New Hampshire in 2012, the reserved justice sounded an alarm. He explained that if Americans are not engaged in their democracy, they would lose it.

And he gave some disconcerting data to back that up: According to a study at that time, a majority of Americans could not name all three branches of government (executive, legislative, and judiciary). Souter noted that the circumstances left America vulnerable to misinformation and authoritarianism.

He called on schools to do more.

Just as Souter was messaging for more civic education, schools were headed in a different direction, emphasizing reading and math instruction, at the expense of history and social studies because of the calls for “accountability” in subjects tested under state standardized exams.

In those days, calls for increasing civic courses captured some academic attention but little in the way of curricular reform. Things have changed. Today, civic education is a hot topic. Educators and politicians are (rightly) talking about how schools can ensure that students understand how democracy works and become engaged.

Frequently, the efforts to do this are “classroom-” or instructional-based. This is important. After years of attention to the three “Rs,” a return to civics instruction is long overdue.

Civic Virtues of Voting

But one very elemental area of civic engagement remains largely untouched: the act of voting. How can schools be active agents in helping children get ready to participate at the ballot box? That’s the question we address.

We can extol the civic virtues of voting. It is the cornerstone of civic engagement. It’s both a fundamental right and responsibility. It might be the most consequential act an individual citizen can take in a representative republic.

In addition to being a civic expression on its own, voting leads to other positive forms of civic engagement. Citizens who vote tend to be more informed about current issues and involved in other civic and social groups. Voting breeds a cycle of virtuous civic activity.

To be sure, civic engagement entails much more than voting. But it is hard to dispute the preeminence of voting when we talk about characteristics of engaged citizens.

Reducing Barriers to Vote

Schools—and the law—can help here.

A small number of states, for example, have passed laws requiring officials to assist students in registering to vote as they approach the age of 18. In New Hampshire, for example, all IEPs must include a plan for the student to register to vote before they graduate.

States laws that reduce barriers to voter registration for young people are significant.

Registering to vote (which varies by state but can have idiosyncratic requirements) imposes transaction costs that can deter someone from registering and, therefore, voting. Thus, what schools do to lower registration barriers matters.

High schools in states that do not have any legal requirement, however, are also taking steps to help their students register. Many social studies classrooms devote time to explaining the process of voter registration, and still others have voter registration drives. Thus, even if you are in a state without a requirement, there are things school districts can do.

Building a Foundation for Civic Participation

But what about elementary and middle schools whose student body are not old enough to register to vote? How can you foster voting?

Obviously, when compared to high school, leaders of elementary and middle-level schools face a different challenge: Students are years away from being able to register. It is important to remember that like most educational things, elementary school builds so much foundation for future learning and activities—and voting is no different.

One activity has been helpful: mock elections.

In Texas, for example, the Secretary of State’s offices spearhead the Project V.O.T.E initiative, a program that helps students become informed and responsible voters, as well as provide them with opportunities to participate in the democratic process.

A central component of Project V.O.T.E. is the Mock Election activity. Each gubernatorial and presidential election, teachers are provided with considerable resources and online tools to provides students with a simulated or “mock” election experience based on attributes of a real election.

State school districts launch websites for students to conduct research on candidates and issues. Many develop weeks-long units around researching the issues and candidates ahead of when students cast their ballot, sometimes in actual voting booths the schools provide. Once the votes are tabulated, students can compare the data to the actual election results as part of a cross-curricular activity.  

Creative Teaching Tools to Promote Civic Engagement

In addition to these structured opportunities, there are many other pedagogical tools that teachers can use to promote voting and civic engagement like helping students understand the value of group decision making and “majority rule.”

Easy classroom simulations can be conducted to allow students to make choices: Do students want five more minutes of independent computer time or five more minutes of outdoor recess? This allows younger students the opportunity to be a part of group thinking and democracy by giving each student a vote.  

Or organize the class into different branches of government. Remember the days of class president? Well, that idea is still valuable today. Allow students opportunities to run for office and campaign for issues that directly impact the classroom and students. There’s no better way for younger students to get excited about voting than to experience the power of their vote.

In the hands of professional educators that know the craft so well, the opportunities to create realistic, indelible voting and civic engagement experiences at the appropriate grade level are limitless.

Now Is the Time to Plan

Time to plan is of the essence. As you read this, states are preparing to hold primaries for a host of elections at all levels (federal, state, and local). Next year, voters will decide presidential, congressional, and state-level races. This is a critical window—of about a year—to extend learning opportunities around voting.

School administrators play a key role in our democracy. You ensure students receive the education to which they are entitled under the law. Encouraging you to think about ways to instill civic engagement in our children—particularly around the act of voting—keeps with that theme.

By helping our children gain the experience and confidence to be active democratic citizens, you will help ensure that our system of representative government and laws continues.

Mark Paige is professor and chair of the Department of Public Policy at University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth.

Chassidy Olainu-Alade is coordinator, Community and Civic Engagement—Communications, for the Fort Bend ISD (Texas)/Sugar Land 95 Memorialization Project.