Nov. 8 marked the last election in which I couldn’t vote. Next year, I will be a voter. I will be deemed old enough to make responsible, educated choices about my country’s future and will finally have a voice in my government’s decisions.
A few days ago, I saw the Massachusetts ballot hanging on a bulletin board in the library. I am a junior in high school and realized that I had never seen a ballot before, so I read it. If someone asked me to vote on some of those issues now, I would not be able to make an educated decision. I was confused by the wording of the ballot and unsure about the effects of the propositions.
Coincidentally, my English class discussed the importance of civics education in school the next day. I am not alone in my feeling of civic unpreparedness. Some of my peers realized that they did not know our current governor’s name or the candidates’ names. None of my classmates had ever seen or read a ballot before.
It is not that students in Massachusetts do not receive civics education—all students are required to take a full-year civics course in 8th grade and all students must participate in a civics project in high school. Both of these educational opportunities are wonderful. I have learned a lot about the history of democracy, its principles, the Constitution, the responsibilities of being a citizen, and how citizens can spark change. However, this formal civics curriculum places little emphasis on voting.
How is it possible that I could graduate from high school without ever seeing a ballot? Yet, I can tell you all about how the first democracy started in Greece and list the three branches and functions of U.S. government by rote.
As a student, I am currently learning about infinite series in calculus, World War I in history, and ionic and metallic bonds in chemistry. Although those subjects are interesting, I can confidently say that I likely will not use those skills regularly as an adult. But the lion’s share of students will have the opportunity to vote repeatedly for the rest of their lives, so why are we not taught how to do so?
If there ever were a life skill to learn, it is voting. The ability to read ballot propositions, analyze the issues, and vote in an educated manner are critical skills. Teaching students how starts by exposing them to ballots in schools.
I understand that students are busy with their current courseload, school resources are already stretched, and teachers are overworked. However, voting is one skill that students will use the most in their life, and it has the potential for the most significant impact, yet we young people are least prepared to use it.
How is it possible that I could graduate from high school without ever seeing a ballot?
Formally changing the curriculum so that all students graduate from high school at least having looked at a ballot is a tall order. But that does not mean students like me have to be unprepared heading into polling stations.
Parents, take a second to check in with your teenagers. Do they know what was on the ballot? Read the propositions with them. Make sure they know the steps you took to exercise your right to vote: registering, receiving an absentee ballot, or finding your polling site.
Teachers, it is not necessary to make a long, formal presentation on voting. It can be as simple as a quick check-in. Ask students if they know who the candidates are and what measures are on the ballot. Be sure to share government websites where they can find the correct information. Provide steps that students can take to make informed decisions, so they will be ready to vote once they legally can.
Steps like these do not have to become political or divisive. But bonus points if you can facilitate civil discourse—though, the goal is just to ensure students are civically prepared to vote.
After all, my generation will soon have to make decisions about the future, so at a minimum, we must be able to confidently execute the most basic part of that process—voting.
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2022 edition of Education Week as Student: I’m Not Prepared to Vote