Families & the Community

4 Tips for Organizing a School-Based Voter Registration Drive

By Sarah Schwartz — October 10, 2022 5 min read
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As the midterm elections draw closer, many teenagers are nearing a milestone: The first time they’ll be eligible to vote.

Young people, though, are traditionally less likely to turn out to the polls than older Americans—a fact that civics education advocates say schools can help to change through voter registration efforts.

Surveys show that teenagers are more likely than older adults to say that the complexity of the registration process deterred them from voting. But schools can be ideal venues to dispel some of that confusion and answer students’ questions, said Mike Burns, the national director for Campus Vote Project at the Fair Elections Center, a voting rights organization.

For one, school-based outreach meets students where they already are, rather than expecting them to seek out information on their own, Burns said. And it can also provide a neutral, nonpartisan space for students to learn about the mechanics of voting without facing pressure to pick a certain party or candidate.

“We live in such a hyper-partisan age around so much of what’s going on in politics, and it’s just so important for young people, as they enter the process, to see that there are nonpartisan ways to do this. Voter registration should be one of them,” Burns said.

Many states have formally tapped schools to do this work, requiring principals or district officials to make voter registration forms available or offer education on the process. In most states, students can pre-register before they turn 18. But as a new report from the Fair Elections Center and the Civics Center recently found, not all schools follow these mandates.

This lack of compliance usually isn’t “nefarious,” said Vicki Shapiro, the director of special initiatives for The Civics Center, and one of the authors of the report.

“There’s just such a huge lack of awareness around how old you need to be to register to vote in a given state, how you go about doing it, and these school districts themselves, they haven’t had training in this issue,” she said. (For a breakdown of state policies on youth voter registration, see this chart from CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement).

Education Week spoke with school leaders for their advice on how to organize successful voter registration efforts. Read on for four tips.

1. Contact the local board of elections. It is a good starting point

Many local elections boards, which run polling places and maintain voter data, have resources for schools, Burns said.

When Matthew Mederios started as the principal of a newly-opened high school last year, contacting them was his first step in setting up a voting plan. “I just reached out to the Whitfield County Board of Elections here, to see what they had in place for schools,” said Mederios, the principal of The Dalton Academy in Dalton public schools, in Georgia.

He emailed the board’s registrar, asking whether the agency had a voter education program for students. It did: The registrar and a colleague came out to the school to meet with seniors and walk them through the voter registration process, Mederios said.

2. Districts should create support systems that make it easier for principals to meet any state requirements

In Texas, state law puts the responsibility on high school principals—they’re in charge of distributing voter registration cards twice a year.

But having a centralized, districtwide strategy can take some of the burden off school leaders, who have many other daily responsibilities on their plates, said Chassidy Olainu-Alade, the coordinator for community and civic engagement in the Fort Bend school district.

Olainu-Alade runs training for new principals at the beginning of each academic year to explain the legislative requirements. “I make sure they know what the dos and don’ts are,” she said. A few weeks into the school year, she collects information from each campus about its voter registration plan.

Voter registration drop boxes, like this one in the principal’s office at Progressive High School, are installed on campuses throughout the Fort Bend school district in Sugar Land, Texas. Providing centralized spots for students to drop off the forms is one part of the school system’s multi-pronged effort to grow young voters.

In Mederios’s former district, Lee County, Fla., the school system organized a voter registration competition among the campuses, he said.

Representatives from the board of elections worked with government teachers to plan a kick-off assembly, and to answer individual students’ questions about the process. The school that registered the most young voters received a trophy—and the competition was serious, Mederios said: “That was a big deal. It was very prestigious.”

Several organizations have also put out guides that can help districts or schools create plans. See here and here.

3. Instead of planning a one-off registration event, connect with students about voting throughout the year

In Fort Bend, Olainu-Alade makes sure that students get regular reminders about the registration process.

The most common school-level practice in the district is for government and economics teachers to discuss voter registration in class, pass out the registration cards, and have the principal or other school-level designee collect them, she said. But the district boosts these efforts with a system-wide messaging campaign, including posters and public service announcements.

During the 2019-20 school year, when the pandemic shut down school buildings, Olainu-Alade organized mailers to go out to students who would be 18 by election day. The district sent out more than 4,000 birthday cards to these students with voter registration applications enclosed.

“It was so well-received that we actually continued it the next school year, even when some students were in a face-to-face setting,” Olainu-Alade said.

4. Invite students to co-design the voter registration campaign. That can get them more engaged in the process

Not all high school students are eligible to register—some because they’re not yet old enough, others because they’re not U.S. citizens, Olainu-Alade said. But students can get involved in other ways in the district, she said, like volunteering to help prepare registration materials. The video public service announcements about voting that Fort Bend shows are also student-created, she said. See an example below.

In a 2019 Education Week opinion piece, California English teacher Jacqulyn Whang wrote about how her students organized a voter registration drive at their high school, registering more than 200 students. The process, Whang wrote, allowed them to “see themselves as young representatives of a resilient city with a voice.”

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