Social Studies

How Schools Can Prepare Students to Vote for the First Time

By Evie Blad — January 31, 2024 3 min read
Image of a parent and child at a voting booth.
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Schools can help students build a lifelong voting habit by equipping them with the practical information they need to participate in their first election, civics organizations say.

“There’s a lot of opportunities for educators and schools to start to talk about voting as a really concrete way citizens make decisions together,” said Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, which conducts research on young voters.

Some youth activists have pushed communities to lower the voting age for school board elections to 16 so that they can vote for the first time while they are in high school. That way they can develop the habits of regular voters, and be supported by educators and mentors who can guide them through the process, Education Week reported recently.

But, even in communities without such an on-ramp to full electoral participation, schools can get students in a voting mindset by discussing the process—and the role of voting in their communities—early and often, youth advocacy groups said.

That’s because researchers have found that successful voting experiences in early adulthood correlate with more consistent voting later in life.

“We want to strengthen our democracy by increasing voter turnout in the future,” said Yenjay Hu, a 17-year-old New Jersey student advocate who supported a recent successful effort to lower the school board voting age in nearby Newark.

Here are three things to know.

1. A lack of information can be an obstacle to voting

In a nationally representative poll of Americans ages 18-34 released by CIRCLE last November, 57 percent of respondents said they are “extremely likely” to vote in 2024. Fifteen percent said they are “fairly likely” to vote.

Sixty-two percent of respondents said they feel qualified enough to vote in the next election, and 88 percent of those who felt prepared said they are likely to vote. Among those who said they felt unprepared, though, only 42 percent said they were likely to vote.

The majority—67 percent—said they’d seen and heard information about the election from family and friends. Fifty-nine percent said they’d gotten information from local media, 55 percent from national media. By comparison, 19 percent said they’d heard from campaigns and candidates and 14 percent said they’d heard from community groups.

2. Voter preparation should start early

The information gap suggests educators could play a key role in helping students understand how to weigh issues and candidates, and how to register, locate a precinct, and understand election laws, Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

CIRCLE’s Growing Voters framework provides a roadmap for schools to engage with their communities and identify ways to help students feel more connected with the democratic process.

That can start early by helping young students identify themselves as part of a community when they go on field trips or discuss public resources, Kawashima-Ginsberg said.

Older students need to understand the role policymakers have in shaping the issues that are most important to them, the framework says. And discussions of elections should happen regularly, not just during the lead-up to presidential elections.

3. Teaching about elections promotes other school priorities

The Teaching for Democracy Alliance, a coalition of 19 youth and civics organizations formed in 2016, asks school administrators to sign a pledge to help prepare future voters.

The alliance provides resources on topics like media literacy, civics education, and experiential learning. It also provides recommendations for the classroom, school, and district level on a variety of issues that can build voter engagement.

Teachers should bring in nonpartisan community groups to discuss voter registration and ask students to break into discussion groups to weigh the pros and cons of ballot issues, the recommendations say.

Districts should provide practical voting materials to high school students and engage in early registration efforts where students are eligible. (Many states allow students to preregister to vote before they turn 18. Although more than half of states encourage or require schools to provide voter registration forms to students, many districts don’t follow these guidelines, analyses have found. )

Beyond increasing students’ likelihood of voting, such lessons connect to other school priorities, the alliance said. For example, election lessons can:

  • Build “21st century skills” like critical thinking, communication, and collaboration.
  • Promote youth voice by including avenues for students to identify and share their concerns.
  • Help students develop a “civic identity” and recognize their ability to influence their communities.

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