My 22-year-old stepdaughter recently told me that she wasn’t planning to vote this year, and then she admitted that she never had before, either.
Two reasons for this came to light. Apathy was not one of them. Instead, she didn’t know what to expect at the polls or have information about local candidates, and she didn’t believe that her vote would matter anyway.
She was nervous to go to the polling place because she had no idea what to expect. As an educator, I have always emphasized the importance of registering to vote to my students. I’ve even helped register several first-time voters over the years. But in my haste to register my students to vote, it never occurred to me to discuss with them the actual act of voting.
My stepdaughter wasn’t too worried about not going to vote since the 2016 election convinced her that her vote wouldn’t matter anyway among the millions cast in an electoral system that does not necessarily reward the candidate who gets the most votes. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 3 million votes but lost the election because she came up short in the Electoral College. The fact is, however, that history is replete with elections decided by one or a very few votes. In 2016, for instance, both a state Senate Democratic primary and a state House seat in Vermont were decided by one vote.
Political conversations in the classroom that promote issues or candidates are never appropriate, but the act of voting is not a partisan issue."
I was heartbroken by my stepdaughter’s revelation. I hated the thought of her not exercising her constitutional right because she doesn’t believe her voice could make a difference.
Many educators discuss the importance of voting with our students. But could we do more to alleviate their fear of the unknown while also convincing them that their voice matters? I think we can. Here are some ideas to consider:
● Share your first-time voting story. You don’t have to disclose who you voted for to tell students where you were and how you felt. Did you vote in person or absentee? Did you feel prepared to vote? I now tell my students how I’ve felt when I’ve seen names on a ballot and not known anything about them: Do I randomly choose or do I not vote in that race? One seems risky, and the other seems disrespectful to all those who have fought for my right to vote as a woman. I explain the importance of doing the research and the feeling of satisfaction that comes with knowing I am voting for a person (or issue) with intention.
● Explain the voting process. If they are voting in person, encourage your students to tell the poll workers that it’s their first time voting. Most likely, they will be happy to help them navigate each step of the process. Tell them that they are not obligated to vote in every race on the ballot if they don’t have a preference. Whatever the method (computer, pen and paper, punch ballot), reassure them that it will be private and that no one will see how they vote. Discuss the importance of completing absentee ballots on time, thoroughly, and correctly by following all directions precisely.
● Discuss the history of the fight for suffrage in America. According to the 2020 documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” only 6 percent of Americans were eligible to vote in the first presidential election. The other 94 percent had to fight to get that right. Read articles and show documentaries about enfranchisement and the obstacles that still impede it for so many Americans.
● Make it clear that every vote counts. Discuss elections that came down to just a few votes, including the presidential elections that were decided narrowly.
● Demonstrate how to find voting information. Today’s young voters have resources that I did not when I first voted. Websites for each state’s secretary of state and county boards of elections have information about how to check if your voter registration is up to date and more. The nonpartisan organization When We All Vote is another great resource with links to info for every state, and the site has a tool kit for schools to teach kids of all ages about voting.
● Build excitement for future voting. What if we could get kids to look forward to their first time voting as much as they look forward to getting a driver’s license or going to the prom? If we start treating voting as an important milestone when kids are young, I think we can build a level of excitement and appreciation for the right to vote. There are books for all ages of children that address elections and voting. Make them part of your classroom library.
If you are a parent and voting in person, take your own children with you when you vote. I have taken my daughter with me since she was 4 years old; familiarity with the voting process has become ingrained in her. Encourage your students who aren’t old enough to vote themselves to accompany their parents to the polls.
Political conversations in the classroom that promote issues or candidates are never appropriate, but the act of voting is not a partisan issue. We should prepare our students to become informed citizens who participate in the democratic process. We must remember, however, that it doesn’t matter how many students we register to vote; only the ones who exercise that right have a voice in what happens. We need to go beyond registration efforts and address the concerns and fears young voters have about the actual act of voting.
My stepdaughter and I updated her voter registration and downloaded the Ohio Voter Info app. She knows where she is going to vote and which issues and candidates will be on her ballot. She’s ready to vote in the most historic election in American history this November.
The best part? When she came to visit, she had a big announcement to make: “You’re going to be so proud of me. I helped my roommate register to vote.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2020 edition of Education Week as How to Prepare Students for Voting