Our public schools should be the conservatories of democracy.
Just as children must be trained to sing in harmony, so, too, must they be educated for citizenship.
Like an enormous choir, our nation needs fresh, diverse voices to flourish—now more than ever. Democracy’s electoral chorus has grown dangerously faint, in large part because schools have failed to prepare students to vote as adults.
The sad spectacle of last year’s Trump vs. Clinton presidential race not only muzzled civic discourse, it fed our nation’s cynical complacency about voting. Out of an electorate of more than 230 million, only 138 million voters cast a ballot last November, according to the United States Elections Project. When 40 percent of the voting-eligible population disenfranchise themselves, something is very wrong.
To help restore turnout in elections and faith in the nation, our schools must provide all of America’s more than 55 million K-12 students the opportunity to vote in mock elections at school. Now.
Voter turnout has been in crisis for decades. Even in the 2008 presidential election, which had the highest voter-turnout rate since 1968, nearly 39 percent of eligible voters stayed home. Local elections are on life support. For example, in the 2013 mayoral elections in New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami, the respective turnout of eligible voters was 24 percent, 23 percent, and 11 percent. You can look it up.
This flood of apathy, disillusionment, and rancor is drowning our democracy.
Our children know this.
The path to our polity’s restoration is lit by Norway, Denmark, and Sweden, where schools hold regular mock elections to coincide with election campaigns, and adult-voter turnout averages higher than 80 percent, according to political scientist Henry Milner.
Nonpartisan mock elections in schools should mirror adult-voting processes with age-appropriate materials. Students learn that all elections matter, not just the presidential election.
For instance, in any given municipality with a school bond measure on the ballot, students in kindergarten through 2nd grade might study the role of school in their neighborhood and vote on a simplified ballot; 8th graders might teach 7th graders about the topic and vote on a “real” ballot; and seniors might study the measure’s tax implications, and, before voting, stage a community debate with student-run voter-registration tables and proud parents in attendance.
E pluribus unum evolves from test item to shared experience.
Voting is citizenship’s summative act. Before casting ballots, students must study political vocabulary, issues, and candidate platforms. Media-literacy instruction is essential so apprentice voters can parse “alternative facts” and “fake news” from the real stuff. Such instruction can facilitate real-world dialogue and build bridges around the school community.
Schools have failed to prepare students to vote as adults."
But for too many Americans—left, right, and center—our politics conjures walls, not bridges.
We’ve been here before.
As the Civil War loomed, Horace Mann, known to many as the father of American public education, viewed a society poisoned by some of the same scourges we face today: venomous partisanship, racism, and social discord.
His prescription? Education.
“Education is our only political safety,” he is widely quoted as saying. “Outside of this ark all is deluge.”
Ultimately, Mann and his successor John Dewey forged a civics-rich education tradition that encouraged generations to vote.
As voter turnout began to collapse in the 1970s and in the decades since, parallel cutbacks in K-12 civics requirements and the expansion of standardized, test-based education programs have degraded youth civic engagement. Pressure to prepare for trademarked tests almost eliminates teachers’ freedom to stage meaningful simulated elections, much less cover historic events like the 2016 presidential campaign or the subsequent Women’s Marches and other recent protests. Student opinions go undeveloped, their voices unheard.
In a democracy, no freedom is more essential than speech, and no form of speech is more fundamental than voting. This truism guides the many programs that promote youth voting as the nexus of America’s resurgent, bipartisan civics movement.
Chicago’s Mikva Challenge empowers tens of thousands of students to participate in “action civics,” including mock elections. The Youth Leadership Initiative at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics and the National Student/Parent Mock Election helped millions of youths vote in mock elections across the United States in 2016. Hawaii has the nation’s first statewide, K-12 annual mock-election requirement.
Required mock elections can face resistance, however. In Seattle, for example, the Civics for All Initiative landed a five-year, $250,000 grant from the King County, Wash., department of elections to fund distribution of age-appropriate, mock-election voter’s guides and ballots for mock elections for the city’s more than 53,000 public school students. To date, despite tremendous local and political support for required mock elections, Seattle school district leaders have vetoed the proposal in favor of optional mock elections. Just 3,900 students participated in 2016. (The authors of this essay hold leadership roles with the Youth Leadership Initiative and the Civics for All Initiative.)
Still, as more cities and states mandate mock elections, we will graduate ever more generations of citizens trained in democracy’s fine arts. Voter turnout should soar.
Mock elections provide a logical, scalable centerpiece for civics, an often orphaned discipline. Democracy’s autumnal traditions help teachers dependably stake out time for pre-election lessons for all students, especially the majority of public school students who are trapped below the poverty line, on the wrong side of the “civics achievement gap,” as Harvard education professor Meira Levinson terms it.
Mock-election activities offer youths equity, agency, and help in pushing back the hopelessness that stalks so many of them. Why would we deny any student this experience?
Petition your representatives to require mock elections in your school district and state. Just imagine the beautiful ensemble of 55 million young people addressing issues, choosing candidates, and voting each fall!
Let’s let their voices be heard.