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What Teachers Can Learn from Iowa’s Efforts to Engage Teen Caucusgoers

By Evie Blad — January 29, 2020 5 min read
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As the nation’s eyes turn to Iowa, where party caucuses next week will provide the first official results of the 2020 presidential primary, the state’s youngest voters—many of them still in high school—are preparing to weigh in for the first time.

A new law allows 17-year-olds to register to vote and participate in party caucuses if they will turn 18 before the general election in November. Read my story here about the special responsibility Iowa civics teachers feel to prepare their students to participate in a politically powerful state.

One of those educators, veteran Iowa City government teacher Gary Neuzil, has tried to give his students as many real-life experiences as possible to prepare them to choose a candidate, voice their opinions, and caucus. He’s taught them about media literacy, connected events in the primary to past presidential elections, and challenged them to find creative ways to make sure their eligible peers register to vote.

As I reported my story, Neuzil agreed to give a few of his students the most essential Iowa caucus season experience of all: speaking to a clueless out-of-town reporter about their political views.

What the students shared could be instructive for teachers around the country as their states head into primary election season at a time when many teens pride themselves on political participation. Here are a few highlights from my notebook.

Students Need Practical Help With Voting, Registration

In dozens of states, qualifying teens can register at 17 if they will turn 18 by the general election. In many of those states, registered 17-year-olds can participate in presidential primaries. Here’s the most recent data from Fair Vote, an organization that encourages voting.

But teachers said some teens aren’t familiar with voting laws, and they might not realize they can register. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, known as CIRCLE, has found students aren’t always certain that election workers will help “people like them” vote, and some need help discerning reliable information about candidates.

Iowa students told me they also need help feeling confident about expressing their opinions around adults: The caucus requires them to appear in person and, for Democrats, to physically stand with others who support their candidate.

So some Iowa teachers have staged mock caucuses, having students caucus for their favorite cookie flavor or pizza topping to help them understand the process. What might intimidate students about voting in your state? How can schools address that barrier?

Young People Are Eager to Influence 2020 Election

While young people are historically less likely to vote than Americans in older age groups, signs point to increased interest in 2020. In Iowa, about 5,000 17-year-olds have registered, the secretary of state’s office told me.

And, in a Jan. 24 CIRCLE-Tisch College/Suffolk University poll of Iowans ages 18-29, about 35 percent of respondents said they are “extremely likely” to caucus on Feb. 3.

That interest lines up with data that shows nationwide increases in youth voter participation in the 2018 midterms.

Iowa students tell me they’ve seen peers who volunteer for campaigns pushing friends to commit to their candidates and debating issues like capitalism in the hallways.

Fake News Is a Real Problem

Iowa teachers at both the middle and high school levels said one of their biggest challenges in helping their students engage with democracy is the confusing and crowded media landscape. Part of the problem: Where students, and Iowans in general, get their news is increasingly individualized based on their social media feeds, podcast preferences, and targeted internet ads.

Maddie von Harz, 17, a high school senior from Iowa City, told me students are even surprised to learn how many candidates are running for the Democratic ticket because she has been bombarded by ads for just one.

“Tom Steyer,” she said of the billionaire philanthropist who has made big ads a center of his strategy. “His ads are everywhere,” including between every video she watches on YouTube and popping up on her friends’ cell phone apps, she added.

Neuzil teaches his students to interpret poll results, how political ideas are pitched, and how to parse the effects of political media coverage. To detach the concepts from one candidate or another, he sometimes mocks up fake campaign materials for his own fictitious campaign, making himself the center of a joke to get his students excited to participate.

“What I’m teaching is here and now and real, versus stale in a textbook,” he said.

Here’s a sample Neuzil campaign banner that hangs on his classroom wall:

Civic Participation Goes Beyond Voting

Teachers don’t want their students’ civic engagement to stop with voting. They want them to be prepared to engage on a variety of levels.

Jack Vanderflught, a government and history teacher at Dallas Center-Grimes High School northwest of Des Moines, also serves as his county’s Republican Party chairman. The students he’s teaching today may be the adults who volunteer for parties and campaigns in the future, something that shapes his approach.

So Vanderflught requires students to participate in democracy by completing tasks like attending a public meeting, observing a caucus, volunteering for a campaign, or writing to a public official. He also brings in representatives of campaigns from both parties to speak with students.

“They ask questions about the process and how it works,” Vanderflught said. “I can tell them about what it’s like on the other side and the things they don’t see.”

Getting the Most Out of Mock Elections

Like students around the country, many Iowa kids participate in a form of mock election at school. The secretary of state’s office coordinates a statewide Youth Straw Poll. Candidates, including presidential candidates, make video pitches to students. And schools often encourage actual voter registration alongside the mock event, teacher said.

So who do Iowa kids favor in the caucuses? Democrat Andrew Yang, who has proposed lowering the voting age to 16, and President Donald Trump led their parties’ vote totals, official results from Secretary of State Paul Pate show. Among Democrats, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been at the top of some adult polls in recent weeks, was a close second.

If candidates fare poorly in that mock contest, they will likely ignore it, Pate predicted in an interview earlier this month. “But if they do well, they run that number pretty high up the flagpole,” he said.

As predicted, Yang’s Iowa team and his traveling press aide tweeted out the Youth Straw Poll results hours after they were announced this week.

Photo: Students at McCombs Middle School in Des Moines watched candidate videos to prepare for the Youth Straw Poll in October. --Des Moines Public Schools

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