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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

Low School Board Election Voter Turnout? Increase the Pool of Eligible Voters

By Guest Blogger — August 15, 2017 5 min read

This month, Rick is out catching up on various and sundry projects that piled up during the rollout of Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In his stead, we’ve got a terrific slate of guest bloggers. Up this week is Rachel White, a postdoctoral fellow/research associate at USC’s Rossier School of Education.

Local school board elections are notorious for low voter turnout—often just five or ten percent. Researchers have pointed to a number of ways to increase voter turnout in local school board elections, such as shifting the timing of local school board elections to be in line with mayoral, gubernatorial, or presidential elections or allowing partisan elections to reduce the cognitive burden of voting by providing voters with party labels. Some state and local policymakers are offering another solution: increasing the pool of eligible voters.

Last week, a member of the Colorado state legislature voiced his intent to introduce legislation that would provide local school boards flexibility to allow individuals as young as 16 years of age to vote in local school board elections. In recent years, similar efforts have surfaced: Voters in Berkeley, California passed Measure Y1 in fall 2016 to lower the voting age to 16 for Berkeley Unified School District Board of Directors elections; and the local governments in Takoma Park and Hyattsville, Maryland both recently voted to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in city elections, including local school board elections. Early outcomes are positive in terms of voter turnout: In recent Takoma Park elections, the turnout rate for 16- and 17-year-olds quadrupled the overall average voter turnout.

At a time when youth trust in political institutions continues to decline and civic engagement of young voters in the United States is at an all-time low, why not allow youth an opportunity to engage in the democratic process at an earlier age? If public schools are to prepare students for a democratic way of life, what better way to do so than through experiential learning? After all, these students are impacted by the local school board decisions each and every day.

Those opposed to allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in school board elections question whether these youngsters can or will be well informed in making their voting decision. Given the high levels of political ignorance among American adults (e.g., just 34% of Americans can name the three branches of the federal government), this seems like a bizarre argument. Students in all 50 states are required to complete coursework in civics or social studies prior to graduation. As such, civic engagement is likely a topic that is fresh in their mind. In fact, research has shown that civic knowledge increases between the ages of 14 and 16 and then levels off. What is more, when compared to 19-, 21-, and 23-year-olds, 16-year-olds are more knowledgeable of the American political system. Yet, it should be noted that some recent research has found that adolescents continue to develop their ability to resist peer pressure through the age of at least 18. As such, perhaps there is a bit of concern as to whether this may impact 16- and 17-year-olds’ voting experience and actions.

With growing concern about “the ease at which disinformation about civic issues is allowed to spread and flourish,” perhaps lowering the voting age for local school board elections provides an excellent opportunity to teach young adults how to seek out information about candidates on the ballot. Teachers in Takoma Park have already reported that lowering the voting age has helped them make their civics lessons more relevant and impacted how they teach about enfranchisement and the role of citizens in democracy.

Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds the opportunity to vote also provides an opportunity for educators to help educate young voters about the voter-registration process and even provide students with the time and resources to register to vote. Although many states allow voter preregistration beginning at the age of 16, perhaps students would be more motivated to register to vote if they could personally experience the benefits of this civil right. Moreover, while many nonvoters cite time and resource constraints—as well as issues of discrimination—in the voter-registration process, because 16- and 17-year-olds are legally obliged to attend schools that, if public and even in some private schools, cannot discriminate due to prohibitions listed in federal law, perhaps such burdens and injustices in the voter-registration process could be reduced.

Furthermore, although many immigrant students are U.S. citizens, often their parents are not. As such, in most communities, immigrant parents do not have the legal right to vote in local elections, including local school board elections. Lowering the voting age for local school board elections could provide a unique opportunity for immigrant students to become civically engaged and have their voice heard in the local education policymaking process.

Finally, research has shown that voting is habitual: Voters who skip their first election are far more inclined to become “habitual nonvoters” and voting in one election increases the likelihood of voting in subsequent elections by 25 percent. Perhaps voter turnout could be improved if students were encouraged and supported in the establishment of good habits for civic engagement while they are still in school.

And, can you imagine if local school board candidates had to gear some of their campaign efforts towards students sitting in their schools? A portion of my scholarly research focuses on how state and local education policymakers perceive of their role in making education policy. I cannot tell you the number of times a policymaker has said something along the lines of, “Education policy is an adult’s playground.” Sure, allowing 16- and 17-year-olds the opportunity to participate in local school board elections may boost voter turnout. More importantly, however, it may force adults to be attentive to the thoughts and desires of those physically on public-school playgrounds. Luckily, in our system of federalism, some local communities are serving as laboratories of democracy and, in time, will reveal both the strengths and weaknesses of this local school board election system reform.

—Rachel White

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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