The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Many young people don’t vote because they never learned how. Here’s a free class now in schools trying to change that.

Poster about a free class teaching young people why they should vote and how to do it. (Rock the Vote)

Consider this: In 2016, in 50 mayoral elections, the median voter age was 57.

Yes, there’s something wrong with that, and with the fact that young people don’t vote in big percentages in any election. In fact, a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center ranked the United States 31st out of 35 countries for voter turnout — and it’s not only young people who stay at home during elections. Only 56 percent of the U.S. voting-age population cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election, which was less than in the record year of 2008.

There is no single answer as to why this is so (people don’t think their vote counts, or they don’t like any of the candidates, etc.), but new efforts are being made to teach young people why they should vote and how they can register and cast ballots.

This post introduces a new, free class on voting for anybody who wants to use it. This week, it was taught in more than 2,000 schools as part of the week of Constitution Day, which was created by Congress in 2004 to push all schools that receive federal funding to offer some type of “educational program” on the U.S. Constitution. Sept. 17 was chosen because it was the last session of the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, during which the final version of the newly written U.S. Constitution was signed by 39 delegates.

This was written by Carolyn DeWitt, president and executive director of Rock the Vote, a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to building the political power of young people, and Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Center, a nonprofit advocacy organization specializing in civil rights and and public interest litigation.

By Carolyn DeWitt and Maureen Costello

If there is one thing we believe in America, we believe in government of the people, by the people, for the people.

But what if the people don’t show up? What if they don’t know how to show up because they haven’t learned how to be democratic citizens? They haven’t learned how to register to vote. They haven’t learned the best way to influence their elected representatives. They haven’t learned that they have power.

A healthy democracy needs well-informed, active citizens. But these citizens don’t just magically appear. People learn citizenship. They learn it, for example, as children when they go the polling place to watch their parents vote. They learn it advocating for an issue they care about with their neighbors. They learn it by doing it.

For a long time, many Americans didn’t just learn about citizenship from their families and friends, they also learned how to be democratic citizens in public school. Not anymore. In the last few decades, instead of expanding civics education, we have cut it and cut it. Today, only nine states require a full year of civics education. Ten states don’t require it at all. In 31 states, students only have to learn about our democracy for one semester. That’s about three and a half months to learn about something as important as our democracy.

The fault lies not with teachers, the principals, school boards, the superintendents or the school districts. The fault lies with those who sit at our state capitals and those who elect them — the American electorate. As testing for writing, reading, science and math have put increasing pressure on schools already suffering from budget cuts, teacher shortages, and dilapidated buildings, civics education — once seen as the very reason for public education — has been all but tossed out.

Thirty-six students per classroom in Nevada, schools without adequate heat in Baltimore, teachers’ walkouts and strikes in West Virginia, Colorado, North Carolina, Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma: These are just some of the issues students are dealing with in the classroom, not to mention the issues that impact their home lives. Yet, students haven’t been given the education to know that they have the power to change all of this.

The results are predictable. A mere 25 percent of high school students achieved a grade of sufficient on a national civics assessment test. Black and Latino kids from low-income households do significantly worse on the test than their white, middle-class peers. In other words, those who are most in need of advocating for resources are the least prepared to do so.

This lack of education translates into a lack of political engagement. With the exception of a few elections, youth voter turnout has steadily declined over the last 30 years. In local elections, the lack of youth participation is even more stark. In 2016 in 50 mayoral elections, the median voter age was 57!

We are short-changing our students and short-changing the future of our democracy. We need to do something about it.

That is why we at Rock the Vote and Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, with the support of American Eagle Outfitters, have launched Democracy Class, a free, nonpartisan curriculum on the history and importance of voting. Educators have the ability to extend the curriculum to teach additional lessons on modern-day voting rights, the importance of local elections, and a civics action class on an issue affecting the local community.

But this class does more than just teach kids about voting. Research has shown that when young people register to vote, they vote in high numbers. That’s why every student who participates in Democracy Class registers or pre-registers to vote.

More than 80 organizations across the country and school districts including Los Angeles and Philadelphia have committed to having the curriculum taught in more than 2,000 schools across the country the week of Sept. 17, which began on Monday with Constitution Day and is the week before National Voter Registration Day.

With nearly 160,000 students registering or pre-registering to vote, Democracy Class gives students and educators a way to participate and prepare for the civic holiday, but the class is available even after.

We’re committed to continuing this momentum and getting Democracy Class into more and more classrooms. We see this as the start of a broad movement to expand civics education across the country and empower the next generation of citizens to work together to create a more perfect union.