Young Americans are Politically Engaged. They Need to be Civically Educated.
This semester, college students are taking political activism to new heights.
Earlier this month, the Every Vote Counts chapter at Yale University held a Town Hall with Sen. Michael Bennett (D-CO), where undergraduates discussed electoral reform and other issues of the day. In March, the University of Michigan’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter is hosting conservative commentator Ben Shapiro, who will field questions from young Democrats and Republicans alike.
Yet America’s youngest voters are routinely described as lazy, disengaged, or both. There is a reason for this unflattering description: In 2018, voter turnout among 18- to 29-year-olds reached 30 percent — the highest youth turnout for a midterm election in decades. Yet youth turnout is still the lowest compared to other age brackets, as many young Americans ignore their right to vote and leave elections to their elders.
But scapegoating young Americans won’t bring them to the ballot box. To translate youth interest in political issues and events into voting consistently, we must first confront the elephant in the room: civic education. Like their elders, many young Americans exhibit clear gaps in their knowledge of the U.S. political system — from the history of voting to the composition of government and the role of elected officials. According to an Annenberg Public Policy Center survey, only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government.
Low youth voter turnout is a symptom of systemic failure, not apathy alone. Based on research from the Education Week Research Center, fewer than one in three schools offer stand-alone civics courses. The overwhelming majority of surveyed principals admit that their schools devote “too little” time to civic education. In the words of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos: “It hasn’t been a focus.”
Fortunately, elected officials and emerging organizations are prioritizing civic education for young Americans. Just days after the 2018 midterms, Gov. Charlie Baker (R-MA) signed into law a bill that requires Massachusetts eighth-graders to complete at least one student-led civics project and establishes a Civics Project Trust Fund, which public schools can use for teacher training and curriculum development. The new law also creates a nonpartisan high school voter challenge program, raising awareness for eligible students to register or pre-register to vote.
Change takes time, but establishing a culture of voting at a young age has the potential to revolutionize American politics. Peer-to-peer events between college students and high schoolers, for example, can go a long way in encouraging young Americans to engage in politics.
Where the education system has failed, technological innovation is also filling the gaps. Online platforms such as IssueVoter make it easy for Americans of any age to stay informed on issues that matter to them, track the votes of elected officials, and contact those representatives in one click. This is especially impactful for young adults, who already rely on their smartphones for finding restaurants, paying bills, and even dating. As Lucy Wollman, a senior at Northeastern University, put it, online tools “[help] me get involved and stay involved as I try and fit civic engagement into my life as a college student.” Now more than ever, students like Lucy can use technology to stay civically engaged and informed year-round.
From legislation to technological advances, a holistic approach to civic education is critical. Simply telling young Americans to “go out and vote” isn’t enough.
Young America is engaged. We care about issues. What we need is civic education, coupled with a call-to-action that can inspire voter turnout for decades to come.
Campbell Streator serves as program director at Every Vote Counts, a student-led, nonpartisan organization dedicated to increasing voter turnout and expanding voter access. Maria Yuan is the founder of IssueVoter, which strives to make civic engagement accessible, efficient, and impactful.