Families & the Community

How States and Schools Are Working to Grow Young Voters

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 06, 2020 13 min read
Seniors Jazmine Duff, right, and India Willis look over a document as they wait to vote early with other students from Walter Hines Page High School at a polling station in Greensboro, N.C. The field trips to the polls have spawned praise and controversy.
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Greensboro, N.C.

Student-body President Kahlil Robertson joined more than 50 of his classmates from Walter Hines Page High School as they poured off a big yellow bus on the Friday before Super Tuesday and formed a line for early voting here at the Bur-Mil Club polling station.

Candidates had been regularly coming to speak at Kahlil’s church for months, and he considered himself relatively well informed on his top issues—gun control, the affordability of health care, and higher education—but he was still nervous filling in his paper ballot.

After all, he’d never done it before.

Kahlil was among more than 170 Page High students—and more than 850 students from 28 schools districtwide—to vote for the first time as part of new civics education field trips in Guilford County Schools. The field trips, which included class discussion and instruction on the voting process, raised students’ participation in the Super Tuesday primary and student interest in the 2020 presidential primary elections here, but they also sparked concerns in the larger community that the district’s efforts to help students vote could instead influence their choices in partisan ways.

For Kahlil, the field trip helped.

“It really boosted my confidence knowing that my classmates were with me, too,” he said. “It really helps students become more aware of what they’re about to get themselves into, in the real world.”

Guilford County’s program offers one model for schools and districts under increasing pressure to help students better launch into adult civic responsibilities, after decades in which traditional civics education has done little to make voting a habit later on in life and inspire other civic behaviors.

See Also: Q&A: How Schools Can Be More Effective at Growing Young Voters

In the last decade, 23 states have changed their rules for voting preregistration for those younger than 18, school education and registration supports for young voters, or both, according to state websites and a new audit by Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE. In the past three years alone, nine states—Delaware, Maine, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Utah, and Washington—tweaked registration rules to allow earlier preregistration for first-time voters. And last year, Georgia became the first state to require school boards to draft policies to excuse students who missed school to register or vote.

Those efforts are intended to help close the voting gap between younger and older voters, which reached more than 30 percentage points in the last presidential election, but a dizzying variety of voting and education rules among states can make it difficult for education leaders to know how best to support their students.

“I met them at the door when they came back this morning, and they were showing me their [“I voted”] stickers almost like a badge of honor. It was exciting to see their smiles,” said Page Principal Erik Naglee. “I think long term, creating students that are going to be lifelong voters is the biggest thing for me.”

Identifying Challenges

Among voter age groups, 18- to 24-year-olds continue to have the lowest voting rates, and their low engagement has historically been chalked up to a lack of interest in civic engagement or laziness.

Laura Brill, the founder and director of the Civics Center, a nonprofit that helps schools with civics education and youth-voting activities, argued that rather than being uninterested, most high school students are never invited to directly engage in the voting process, and many civics or social studies courses don’t include practical instruction.

“Something we see is more than 60 percent of people said they were never asked to register to vote,” Brill said. “It’s pretty eye-opening.”

Many people learn to vote and become politically active in college, according to Evette Alexander, the director of learning and impact strategy for the Knight Foundation. That lack of attention may help to explain why a new nationwide study by the foundation found voting rates tend to go up as voters acquire more education; only 14 percent of those with only a high school degree voted; that rate doubled for those with even a little college, and rose to 35 percent for college graduates.

Young nonvoters are not necessarily chronic nonvoters, Alexander found, but some students who aren’t introduced to voting in high school never get a grounding in how it works.

Students from James B. Dudley High School in Greensboro, N.C., register to vote at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University on the Friday before Super Tuesday. North Carolina allows 17-year-olds to vote in the primary if they will be 18 by Election Day, and the Guilford County school system sponsors field trips to help them learn how to do it.

The Knight Foundation found both 18- to 24-year-olds and nonvoters of all ages said they found it more difficult to sort bias from facts in news and felt less certain that they had enough information to make a voting decision. In fact, young people were less likely that nonvoters of all ages to say they had not registered to vote because they didn’t care. But they were nearly twice as likely to say they hadn’t registered because it was too complicated.

Rather than apathy or a lack of media literacy, research suggests, the biggest barriers to young people voting are simple logistics: They don’t know how to navigate the registration and voting process, and they lack confidence in their media literacy around campaigns.

All those were problems for Mya Daniel of James B. Dudley High School, who also voted with her classmates Feb. 28. She had no transportation and could not have made it for early voting without help, she said, but the field trip also gave her more experience and confidence with the process.

Mya said her parents never took her with them when they voted and considered it inappropriate to discuss their own voting decisions with her.

“I would watch shows where they replicated how people voted, but honestly, I was confused about how the whole process worked,” she said. “I expected it to be much harder, really complicated, and I don’t know why.”

Mya said she felt empowered by voting and the research she did ahead of it, looking for national candidates’ stances on two of the issues she cared most about, support for agriculture and preventing police brutality.

“I like being able to have control over what goes on in the community because there’s a lot of messed-up stuff going on and I like being able to pick someone who I think would change the community,” Mya said.

State preregistration for first-time voters is one of the most effective ways to increase youth turnout, but “schools must play a key role in this,” said John Holbein, an assistant professor of public policy and education at the University of Virginia and a co-author of the new book Making Young Voters: Converting Civic Attitudes Into Civic Action.

Holbein and his colleagues have found voting-age teenagers are more likely to need help registering to vote. For example, Thessalia Merivaki, an assistant professor in American politics at Mississippi State University, found that election officials in Florida were more likely to reject young people’s voter-registration forms for technical mistakes, particularly as registration deadlines loomed for elections.

“We’ve found that preregistration is the most effective when schools do get involved with giving young people the opportunity to engage in that [voting] process, presenting in class about the importance of voting and registering to vote, demonstrating a practical process of filling out voter-registration forms, ... and then encouraging them to learn about contemporary political issues,” Holbein said. “And it really works.”

Schools’ Roles in Engaging Young Voters

State laws vary in the roles carved out for schools in getting students ready to vote. Most states, for example, allow underage students to volunteer at the polls.

Number of States Most Common Activities
45 Minor students can volunteer as poll workers
25 Voter registration drives in school
22 District explicitly required/encouraged to help students register
7 District allowed to support students in registering
6 Schools provide explicit education on voting process
5 Schools are official voter registration sites
5 Schools hold mock elections
1 Schools excuse absences for students to register or vote

In Greensboro, Superintendent Sharon Contreras said the state requires each high school to keep voter-registration materials on hand, have voter coordinators on campus, and seek to register students to vote. The field trips started this year, partly in response to a new civic-literacy law that specifically requires voter instruction. The excursions are voluntary; any student who would be 18 by the general election can opt in.

Justin Scarbro, an Advanced Placement government teacher at Page High, said the new civics education program has made him rethink his own practice. Of 130 students in five classes, he found, students knew virtually nothing about voting before he started preparing for the field trips.

“Even until, like, two days ago, there was confusion that you could go vote in the primary at 17. Just knowing when you can register—they don’t know that, or, you know, how easy registering is,” he said. “They don’t know a lot of things that seem like simple knowledge, but for whatever reason, the access to it has just not been provided on a grand scale. And that’s my fault because I’ve been teaching government for 10 years, so I’m as guilty as anybody for not being better at my job.”

The process also spurred conversations about other voting barriers students face. After helping one student look up his polling place, Scarbro noticed it was miles farther from the student’s house than Scarbro had to travel to his own polling place.

“The distance to his polling place seemed abnormally long,” Scarbro said. “I wondered if that were the case for more kids who came from low-income situations. I thought about that and I was, like, if it weren’t for this [trip], he would have to get creative about how he got to the polls.”

Avoiding Community Conflict

But incorporating voting opportunities into schools can create a minefield.

Greensboro’s program has sparked heated dissent from community members, including Linda Wellborn, the school board’s vice chairwoman, who argued that the field trips would “cause chaos in the learning environment.”

In a long post that launched a 300-comment flame war on Facebook, Wellborn voiced concern that the field trips included any voting-eligible student, not just those in social studies or civics classes, and that the excursions would be a “waste of time and loss of learning” if students forgot the documents they needed to register. She also worried that students could be pressured to vote for particular candidates at the polls, saying: “This has been haphazardly put together in a hurry, and I have to ask what is the aim of this effort—is it really civics, or is there some other purpose?”

Dozens of other commenters argued over similar concerns, often with more colorful language.

Jonathan Permar, the district’s social studies lead and the voting coordinator for the project, said the civics field trips have been in the works for months and followed the same approval and parent-permission processes as all the district’s field trips. The program included all eligible students because some may have already taken civics, he said, so “you can’t make it a course-specific trip; otherwise, you risk disenfranchising a large number of students in the district.” The district worked with principals to incorporate the program into other senior-level courses, such as English, as well as social studies.

“Having eligible U.S. citizens who happen to be high school students vote, it’s neither unethical nor is it illegal,” said Superintendent Contreras.

“One thing that saddens me, to be quite frank, is that, on one hand, we’re very negative about our young people, about our high school students, about college students, the students that fall in that 18- to 21-age range—that they’re apathetic, they don’t participate—but when we eliminate the very barriers that have been identified that keep them from voting, suddenly there’s this pushback,” she said.

“Our board has a mission that says we are preparing students for citizenship. You don’t prepare them for citizenship just by having them sit and learn about the Whigs and the Tories and history from 200 years ago,” Contreras added. “You encourage them to actively participate, and that’s what we’re doing. That’s what a democracy is.”

James B. Dudley High School juniors Christian Arrington, right, and Terry Smalls register to vote at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in Greensboro.

Guilford County is not alone in facing the tension that can bubble up in response to school voter-registration efforts.

Since 1985, Texas has required all of its more than 2,800 high schools to provide voter-registration cards to eligible students twice a year, but as of last year, only 34 percent of 232 counties with public high schools that enroll at least 20 seniors had done so, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project, which monitors compliance with the law. That’s a 20 percentage-point increase from 2017, but Stephanie Gomez, the high school campaign coordinator for the group, said she thinks the number of districts helping students register could have been higher.

Texas districts, like those in many other states, face confusing rules about who is responsible and how schools can support and prepare students. The confusion in Texas stems in part from a nonbinding opinion issued in 2018 by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton. It said school districts could not transport students to polls “absent an educational purpose.” The opinion followed concerns that educators would try to influence students’ choices.

“It’s not that principals or school districts are trying to be negligent or that they are actively not trying to uphold this part of the law,” Gomez said. But, she added, “there’s a lot of fear that doing anything more than just handing the student a card for registering is a partisan stance.”

About the Citizen Z 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, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job.

This article is part of an ongoing effort by Education Week to understand the role of education in preparing the next generation of citizens. See other stories in the Citizen Z series here.

Do you have a great idea for teaching students about civics? Share it with us.

In Greensboro, students brought little awareness of the adult fight over their field trips but they did bring a wide array of their own political leanings and issues of concern to the early-voting polls.

Alejandro Ibrahim of Page High said he regularly discusses news and politics with his parents and leads a 60-student group dedicated to getting more of his classmates to register.

Joey Hennen was “doing his homework” the night before the Page field trip, looking up candidates and their positions, he said. Joey pointed to North Carolina’s recent move to increase the age for buying tobacco from 18 to 21 as one local debate that needed teenagers’ input. But he and classmate Pierce Hudson said they are more likely to gauge national candidates by their stances on abortion and gun restrictions.

Across town, where the students from James B. Dudley High School cast their ballots in a college building of the same name, Nashon Wilhite had one straightforward political concern this cycle: jobs.

“The minimum wage affects a lot of people around our age,” Nashon said.

Looking Ahead

The 18- and 19-year-old voter turnout across 42 states hit “historic high” numbers for the 2018 midterms. More than 28 percent of Americans ages 18 to 29 voted that year—more than double the 13 percent who voted in the 2014 midterms. That increase was driven in part by the 23 percent of 18- and 19-year-olds voting in the wave of student activism that followed high-profile school shootings, including the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., according to a separate study by CIRCLE.

In the nine states with Super Tuesday primaries that had reliable preliminary turnout data, CIRCLE found the youngest voters turned out at higher rates than in similar competitive primaries in 2004 or 2012. Six states had a larger share of young people voting than in prior years, but North Carolina’s youth turnout and voting share was flat.

Educators hope to sustain that civic engagement with programs like Guilford County’s, to give students more practical and hands-on instruction on voting and the elections process.

CIRCLE estimated that young voters have a high potential to affect competitive gubernatorial and congressional races in swing states such as Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Wisconsin, among others. Political watchers likewise think teenagers and 20-somethings could tip the balance in the 2020 presidential elections—if they vote.

Dudley students and teachers consider voter education a part of the school’s historic legacy of student engagement; Dudley was the first black high school in the state, and it was central to the first high-school-led sit-in during the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

“Before the civil rights [movement], we [black people] had the right but we didn’t have the opportunity to vote,” Summers said. “Now that we have the opportunity to vote, ... every vote counts, even the kids’ votes. Everybody has their own opinions, but for your opinions to be heard and make a change, you have to come in and vote.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2020 edition of Education Week as Learning to Become a Lifelong Voter


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