School & District Management From Our Research Center

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

By Alyson Klein — October 29, 2018 8 min read
Ryan McCrossin, an 18-year-old student at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, plans to cast his first ballot in a general election next week—if he can squeeze in the time between morning-to-night classes.
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Erin Mortensen and Leonardo DuPlooy can’t wait to cast their first-ever votes this November—for very different reasons.

DuPlooy, a high school student in rural Hammond, La., wants to support candidates who will have President Donald Trump’s back. Mortensen, a college student in Utah, is looking for a change in direction.

“I see a lot of things happening in the country that I’m not very happy about,” she said, ticking off Trump, climate change, and gun violence as prime examples.

First-time voters like DuPlooy and Mortensen are coming of political age in an era of deep partisan division, immersed in a social-media swirl of information and misinformation. Some have high praise for their K-12 civics teachers. But others say their high school government courses didn’t give them all the tools they need to make educated choices at the polls—or to understand where people on the other side of the debate are coming from.

A little more than a third of 18- and 19-year-olds who participated in an online survey by the Education Week Research Center in September said they had never taken a stand-alone civics class. Yet students who took those courses were more likely to say they plan to vote. Just a quarter of people who have never taken a stand-alone civics class plan to vote. Nearly twice as many do not, said Holly Kurtz, the research center’s director. The survey, conducted with support from the Education Writers Association, includes a nationally representative sample of 1,339 18- and 19-year-olds who have never taken part in a general election. It has a margin of error of 3 percent.

Thirty-one percent of the respondents said they were Democrats, 25 percent Independents, and 20 percent Republicans. Twenty-three percent said they were not registered to vote.

About 60 percent of those surveyed said they plan to vote in the 2018 midterm election in November. That number may be artificially high, Kurtz said, given that just 22 percent of millenials voted in the 2014 midterms, according to the Pew Research Center. But a good chunk of survey respondents also say their own levels of political involvement are rising, motivated in part by national politics.

About This Project

U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis now, as many say it is, it may mean that schools have failed at that task.

Education Week is conducting a long-term investigation to better understand education’s role in the current crisis. This survey is part of that effort, which is supported in part by the Education Writers Association. Look for more pieces from our Citizen Z project in the weeks and months ahead.

Nearly 40 percent said they don’t plan to vote next month. Sometimes, the problem is scheduling conflicts: Ryan McCrossin, 18, a student at the University of Alaska in Anchorage, is hoping to squeeze in a quick trip to the polls, but he has class from early morning until early evening.

But others are already disillusioned with government.

“I don’t really like politics,” said Breana Perry, 18, a high school student in Arkansas, who is still on the fence about whether to vote. Politicians, she said, make empty promises.

When first-time voters are trying to figure out how to fill out their ballot, they are more likely to talk to their families—or check out YouTube—than to read a newspaper or news website.

In fact, about 26 percent of first-time voters surveyed say they get their information about candidates and issues from print or online news sources, such as the New York Times digital edition. That’s behind family (39 percent), TV news (38 percent), YouTube (33 percent), and even Instagram (30 percent).

Social-media sites like Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter are almost as popular as newspapers—but some voters say it can be tough to tell fact from fiction, especially on social media.

Alaskan college student Ryan McCrossin, an 18-year-old political Independent, complained about bias in the political information he finds on social media. “I don’t know what’s real or fake,” he said.

“There’s so much bias, I don’t know what to think. I don’t know what’s real or fake,” McCrossin, a political Independent, said of news stories on heated topics like Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the U.S. Supreme Court. “I know not to pick up something from the Onion and these parody news sites. Those I can tell a mile away.”

Cameron Shields, 18, said he would rather go directly to the players involved in a story than to coverage of it.

“I don’t put my faith completely into the news,” said Shields, an Independent who lives near Memphis, Tenn., and is going to community college while working at Smoothie King. “I like to get my information from the person that’s in the situation. … The majority of the news is very opinionated.” He’s more likely to trust a speech from President Donald Trump, for instance, than news coverage because it comes directly from the source. (Fact checkers have found that much of what the president says is inaccurate.)

But Valerie Battaglia, 18, a student at Delaware County Community College, not far from Philadelphia, is confident she can spot a balanced fact-based news story.

“Some stuff you can tell from the title if it’s click-bait,” said Battaglia, a Democrat who was home-schooled in high school. “I take everything with a grain of salt and try to verify it.” Her favorite sites are the left-leaning Vox and Vice, but she tries to sample Fox News every so often, to get opposing views.

DuPlooy said he’s more likely to trust some news sources than others.

“I feel like CNN is brainwashing,” said DuPlooy, who describes himself as a very conservative Republican. And even when he thinks a story on the network “may have a hint of truth to it, … it’s been layered and layered under a bunch of lies.” He realizes Fox News has a rightward slant, but said, “When I watch Fox News, I can trust it without having to doubt all the time.”

Even though family is a top source of information, young voters don’t always embrace their parents’ views.

DuPlooy debates with his mother, who doesn’t share his enthusiasm for Trump. Mortensen is on a “completely different” political page from her Republican dad.

First-time voter Erin Mortensen, 18, studies calculus in a library at Utah State University in Logan, Utah. A self-described liberal Democrat, she said her high school did a good job of teaching civics, though she would’ve liked to spend more time learning debate skills.

The high cost of living/inflation was No. 1 on young voters’ list of 11 possible economic concerns, with 15 percent of respondents saying it’s the top problem.

Another 13 percent said they think the economy in general is a key issue, while 12.5 percent cited the gap between rich and poor, and 13 percent pointed to taxes.

School shootings top the list of 29 social and political problems facing the country today, with 8 percent of respondents identifying them as the biggest issue. Also high up: gun control, immigration, racism, and crime and violence.

For some first-time voters, politics is deeply personal. Mortensen said the environment is her top issue, but she’s also passionate about gun control, in part because there was a school shooting at another school in her district when she was in middle school.

Shannon McGovern, 19, from rural Mount Pleasant, N.C., said she is most interested in where candidates stand on only one issue: abortion.

McGovern got pregnant at 16 with twin girls who experienced problems in utero. Her doctors “pressured” her to terminate the pregnancy, she said. She opted not to, and her daughters were born early. One twin died when she was just days old, but the other is a thriving 3-year-old. Now, McGovern can’t support any candidate who favors abortion rights, she said.

Almost 40 percent of young voters say their level of political engagement is on the rise, compared with 43 percent who say it has stayed the same and 17 percent who say it’s declined.

A big factor in that spike: Trump. Nearly two-thirds of young voters say that he and his administration had at least some influence on their vote, and nearly 40 percent say it was a significant factor.

Some are looking for candidates who will seek to block his agenda.

“I don’t like him,” said Lilly Brinksman, 18, a recent high school graduate from rural Addison, Vt., who works cleaning office buildings. “I don’t like his policies or anything about him.” She’s especially upset about the Trump administration’s policy of separating undocumented immigrants from their children. And she was put off by his embrace of racist protesters in Charlottesville, Va., last year.

Others are hoping to hand him as many political allies as possible.

“The guy is trying to do some good. He wants to get stuff passed, and there are people blocking him, just because he’s Trump,” DuPlooy said. “He’s doing a good job. I want him to continue to do a good job, so of course I want people who would back him up.”

And about two-thirds of young voters say they were energized at least somewhat by the massacre earlier this year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

Several Parkland students have become nationally recognized proponents of gun restrictions after the slayings.

“They’re definitely inspiring, and it’s amazing that they are willing to put their lives on hold to help make [gun-restriction] policy,” said Mortensen, who participated in the Denver version of the March for Our Lives anti-gun protest. “Giant tragedies shouldn’t be a commonplace, normal thing in society.”

But DuPlooy said that the Parkland students—and other gun-control advocates—don’t have a sense of his Louisiana hometown, where hunting is a big part of the culture.

“Guns are part of the Constitution. We have the right to bear arms. You can’t take that away from us,” he said. Teenagers like the Parkland students are “just brought up very narrow-minded. … What they’re protesting doesn’t make sense.”

Some first-time voters don’t feel like they got the foundation they needed in school to be an informed voter. About half those surveyed—46.5 percent—said they couldn’t name a candidate in the upcoming November election.

Less than a quarter say they stay informed about political issues affecting their community. Only 10 percent have attended or watched a legislative session or government meeting.

“I feel like they didn’t teach us very well all the dynamics of the government and what it really means to be in Congress,” said McGovern, who attended both brick-and-mortar and virtual schools. She said she’s unclear on the functions of some of the offices she’s voting on this fall. “I don’t feel like we were elaborated enough on those things, at least not at my high school.”

Mortensen, who describes herself as a liberal Democrat, said her public high school near Denver did a good job of teaching the basics of government. But she wishes that they had allowed the students to debate issues more.

“I think in general, as a country, if we put ourselves in the other side’s shoes a little more, it could help a lot,” she said.

DuPlooy, the conservative Republican, gave his high school teachers high marks for helping him understand government. He thought debating students on the other side of the political spectrum in his government classes helped broaden his understanding of issues, even if it didn’t change his mind.

“We’d have half the class saying one thing and half the class saying another thing,” he said. He learned, “You can’t just shut down people just because you don’t like what they’re saying.”

The survey of first-time voters was conducted with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship Program.
A version of this article appeared in the October 31, 2018 edition of Education Week as Is America’s Next Generation of Voters Ready for the Job?

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