Teaching Opinion

High School Students’ Views of the Election Process

By David B. Cohen — November 14, 2016 6 min read
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last week, I asked 10th and 11th grade students to share their thoughts, observations, and concerns regarding elections. I asked them not to focus on parties or candidates. Had I asked 24 hours later, I might have received different responses, but I was mostly interested in how our nearly-old-enough-to-vote citizens view the process overall. Generally, I found students held a favorable opinion of the process. Most students believed that voting is important, that election outcomes are valid, and that the government reflects, even if imperfectly, the will of the voters. Their overall faith in the system doesn’t stop them from expressing a number of well-known concerns regarding voting, and certainly some of them are more cynical.

When I asked one class of juniors if they thought that 16- and 17-year-olds should be able to vote, I was somewhat surprised that a majority of them said no. While they have strong opinions on certain issues, many seemed either unprepared to tackle voting, or skeptical that their peers would vote responsibly. One student suggested that even 18 might be too young.

I gathered 60 to 70 responses, some of which are excerpted below. Readers should beware of reading too much into this sample; only some students wanted their responses shared, and my selections were not intended to present the proportionality of common ideas. (Some responses have been edited to correct minor typographical or spelling errors, or to establish a clearer focus.)

  • The ballot itself is way too long. My dad’s friend openly admitted to me that, besides the president and senator, he just goes down the ballot and ticks off the people with names that sound cool. How are voters supposed to stay informed? It would take copious amounts of time in order to google each lower-level candidate and compare what their views and experience look like. And, with the increase of television and internet as news sources, it’s easier than ever to make a subconscious decision to vote for whoever has the prettier website, is more attractive, or hires better photographers.
  • In the United States, the media controls most of the way we communicate and has its ups and downs. For example, the media chooses information to make public and can be biased, but it ultimately serves as a way to reach and inform a wide variety of people on domestic and foreign issues. It is crucial that people cast informed ballots. This can be hindered by the media that distorts certain issues and contradicts other issues. I believe that voting day should be moved to a weekend or be made a national holiday because that would allow for a greater voter turnout.
  • Government actions have become far too removed from the average person, making many feel like they have no power to change anything. Millions today think that their vote has no value. Our two-party system makes this even worse. Our history textbooks take pride in such a system. We had almost a whole chapter on how amazing the two-party system is, and how others lead to turmoil. It glorifies America in all ways and wants us to think that America is so much better than everyone else—all others are always at fault in wars and disagreements. This propaganda needs to stop at all levels.
  • I feel that the current election process we have now in the United States is quite good and stable. When the candidates start to put up their campaigns, the voting population is given a good amount of time to get their personal views of each candidate. After gaining a sense of each candidate there is communication and debate. This gives a whole new perspective of the election. One place I feel the election is lagging is getting a good-sized voting population. We have such a low voting population that we are not getting a good opinion. People sometimes feel that their vote does not count or just do not have any interest. Voting should be made a lot more serious in order to get a good opinion.
  • I don’t think that schools teach the electoral process well enough. I also believe there is too much separation between the candidates and the people because I think MANY votes (more than enough to sway what the vote might be otherwise) are influenced by social media and media in general without an actual in-depth understanding of the candidate they vote for. I think since the beginning of our nation, the people have only been further separated from the candidates they vote for and the majority of information they receive is from media sources which are seldom accurate.
  • I think that the number of voters would increase tremendously if people were automatically registered [to vote] just by being a citizen over the age of 18. But sometimes it is a lot to vote for and voters aren’t informed enough to make a decision that they could back up. That is why I think that the general people we elect, such as congress or city council etc., should be the ones to vote on the smaller things such as propositions.
  • It’s deciding between two evils. It’s almost like we’ve been brainwashed by all of these biased views, and people are asking you to choose between two things that are [supposedly] completely different, and there isn’t actually a huge spectrum of choice.
  • I think debates are a good way to differentiate presidential candidates and a good tool to help them express their motives and views and prove that they’re better than the other candidate. The electoral process overall is pretty effective and usually has good results and includes every person’s (voter’s) views in the final decision.
  • In this coming election, I fear our country is growing apart. Fights and violence have broken out, and as one of the nominees gets elected, it may get worse. In my opinion, our country is growing into one of civil unrest.
  • I wish that we had clear statements and ideas of what they will do as president - not just what they want to change, but how they are going to do what they’re saying we need.
  • I believe that our votes don’t even count. I think it’s just the government’s way of allowing us to believe we have a say in something, but in all honesty we don’t. I know it’s pretty pessimistic to think that our vote doesn’t count but the government has showed us many times they can do whatever they want, when they want.
  • Regarding the electoral college and many more issues regarding how to actually vote, most Americans are confused about the mechanisms of presidential elections. If the mechanisms of voting were taught to high school students, I am sure more citizens would vote. The process is quite confusing, with voter registration, primaries, early voting, mail-in voting, and actually voting at a precinct.
  • Voter intimidation is a subject that has been discussed a lot in the past week. Since states have control over how they conduct elections, information can get confusing when each state has a different procedure. In some states, there are voter ID Laws that require agovernment issued ID to vote. These laws target specific populations that may have difficulty obtaining these IDs, but are otherwise eligible to vote. In states that don’t have these ID laws,there can be misinformation circulating that deters people from showing up to the polls. Overall, the election process is so confusing that some people simply do not vote.

Overall, I was glad to find that students were interested in the election and already familiar with broader issues rather than simply knowing Clinton and Trump. To the extent that we find cynicism and a reductive view of the differences among candidates, I think we can see that we have more work to do as educators.

How should teachers navigate ongoing political discussions in classrooms? I hope to take up that issue further in the near future. For now, my fellow EdWeek Teacher blogger Larry Ferlazzo has plenty to offer on that topic.

See also: “The Days After” by EdWeek Teacher blogger Christina Torres.

On a personal note, I’m glad to announce that a book I’ve been working on for two years is about to be published. Capturing the Spark is a title I came up with for the book (and the Kickstarter campaign that helped fund it) before applying it to this blog as well. The book’s full title is Capturing the Spark: Inspired Teaching, Thriving Schools, and it offers a glimpse of good classrooms and schools all over California. (The book is not connected to EdWeek or its publisher, Editorial Projects in Education).

The opinions expressed in Capturing the Spark: Energizing Teaching and Schools are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.