Michelle Obama Wants Teachers to Make Sure Every Student Is Registered to Vote

By Madeline Will — July 11, 2019 3 min read
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Michelle Obama has a message for teachers: Get your students to vote.

The former first lady delivered a video address to educators at the National Education Association’s representative assembly in Houston, and the American Federation of Teachers’ professional learning conference in Washington, D.C. Last year, Obama had launched a nonpartisan voter registration initiative called When We All Vote.

This call to action for educators is the first program of the initiative. In the coming months, When We All Vote and its partners will release lesson plans for teachers to talk about civic education and voter registration, as well as webinars and in-person trainings. Both national teachers’ unions, along with The League of Women Voters, Inspire U.S., Rock the Vote, and YMCA Youth and Government programs, have partnered with the initiative.

In the video address, Obama pointed to data from the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a research center that focuses on youth civic engagement, that says while youth voter turnout was up, only one in three eligible young voters (age 18 to 29) cast a ballot in the 2018 midterm election.

See also: Is America’s Next Generation of Voters Ready for the Job?

“That means two-thirds of these young people aren’t showing up,” Obama said. “Maybe they don’t think they understand the issues well enough. Maybe they don’t see how their vote will make a difference. Or maybe they just don’t think their voices matter. Whatever the reason, it’s up to us to flip that script—to show young people how crucial their voices are, and how just a few votes can be decisive on issues that matter to them and their community.”

She added: “Obviously, we shouldn’t be telling them how to vote or who to vote for. We just want them to vote, period—to take that first step toward making voting a lifelong habit.”

There has been a groundswell of activism surrounding youth voting, particularly after last year’s school shooting in Parkland, Fla. Students who survived the shooting there and became activists for stronger gun laws conducted a nationwide tour to register young voters. Indeed, analyses show that youth turnout increased significantly in the 2018 midterm election.

Experts have told Education Week that in order to increase youth turnout and sustain the momentum, educators should present the issues in the election in a nonpartisan way, and go over what ballots look like and the different avenues for voting.

“Teachers together bring in an enormous potential as trusted, knowledgeable local people that campaigns and interest groups can never achieve,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsburg, the director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

Education Week has profiled several teachers who incorporated the 2018 midterm elections into their lessons last year. A Denver teacher used the state’s ballot initiatives as a jumping-off point. A Rochester, N.Y., teacher had her students create voter guides for their communities. And a Frederick County, Md., teacher’s students looked at an intensely local election for county sheriff and the issue of opioids.

See also: Citizen Z: Teaching Civics in a Divided Nation

Meanwhile, last fall, the Education Week Research Center surveyed a nationally representative group of about 1,300 18- and 19-year-olds who would have been first-time voters in the 2018 election. Among the 40 percent of teens who said they didn’t plan to vote, some cited scheduling conflicts, while others said they felt disillusioned with government and the political process. Some potential first-time voters said they didn’t feel like they learned enough in school to be an informed voter.

In her video address, Obama said she hopes registering to vote will become “as timeless as homecoming dances or Friday night lights.”

“This is bigger than one party or one election,” she concluded. “It’s about empowering the next generation to make their mark on our future.”

Image: Former first lady Michelle Obama spoke at the American Library Association’s 2018 conference in New Orleans about voter registration. —Gerald Herbert/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.