By Anay Pant
Last year I participated as a High School student poll worker in the 2022 November Midterm elections. This was the first time I felt civically engaged practicing democracy in some form in my country. In a couple of years, I can cast my vote!
Historically, youth voter turnout has stayed around the 25% mark in the USA. It does not indicate that the youth are averse to voting, however studies show that there are structural barriers for youth to participate.
One such barrier is early education and awareness. The USA high school curriculum requires at least 1 semester of American Government class. Topics include the constitutional framework, federalism, the three branches of government, bureaucracy, civil rights and liberties, political participation and behavior, and policy formation. However, the content is not realized in an interactive way, as most students stop at reading a few chapters or watching a documentary.
The reason I got inspired and action oriented was due to my teacher. My teacher gave us practical opportunities such as forums to hear from and interact with our elected representatives e.g., Rep. Mike Thomspon (CA-4), Monica Tranel (MT-02 runner up) and authors such as Mick Rappaport, who have written extensively on the subject. We had lively discussions in class and homework assignments that did not feel like regular homework. We spoke about current events such as the Nov 2022 midterms, and the importance of student poll workers. I only wish I had been exposed to this subject and my teacher much earlier.
Another structural barrier is the individual themselves. At home, early civic education largely depends on the motivation of parents and children’s interest in the subject. Most teens spend little time (<120 minutes per day in the USA) with parents due to the many engagements and distractions.
Teens are constantly occupied (I know it firsthand!) with daily activities such as schoolwork, sports, after school clubs, internships, hobbies, spending time with friends, social relationships, college admissions planning etc. It is also a period of emotional growth and hormonal changes with ups and downs and mood swings. A smartphone is perhaps the biggest time sink. Research shows that 95% of US teens have access to smartphones today.
I am a second generation American, with interest in the subject. However, my parents are not well versed in this subject and are themselves learning their civic duties. Therefore, for the 7.2 million second-generation Americans, civic education at school might be the only option.
As an example, as a Junior, I spend about an hour with my parents daily, maybe two on weekends. Our conversation is usually about academics, family, sports, our pet dog, a movie or food. In my case, my dad and I share a love of history and politics, so we occasionally talk about WWII or political satire from Saturday Night Live or John Oliver. For a second-generation teen like me, school becomes the most important and sometimes the only resource for civic education.
Considering these barriers, it makes sense to start civic education and engagement much earlier. I can also attest through experience that:
- Middle schoolers have more time than High Schoolers
- Middle schoolers are at the age where they start to form their own opinions about the world around them. Giving them a chance to get involved in their community can help them develop a sense of duty, ownership and responsibility.
Why is this so important?
It is important for each individual to understand their civic duty and make it a habit to vote. The habit should be inculcated in the younger years. Over time when diverse voices from all walks of life exercise their right to vote, it will lead to an equitable and just democracy that most communities can benefit from.
In the 2022 mid-terms, the youth (ages 18-24) turnout was the second highest in three decades6 and quite impactful. Young people across the country had their voices heard and were able to support causes they cared about. According to a Harvard poll around 40% of young voters indicated that they would vote in the election. Overall, around 27% youth ballots that were issued were cast in total.
So, in conclusion I urge my readers to advocate for civic education in Middle School and share the tips below with your school boards and community leaders.
What can schools do
- Start civics education early – in middle school
- Encourage students to participate as volunteers in polling stations – local or state-level
- Expose students to experts, community leaders, and other activists
- Allow students to organize and run creative programs such as podcasts, talks
- Recognize students who participate in civic engagement programs
What can communities (Non-Profits, Community Leaders) do
- Community leaders can create educational programs e.g. field visits to city hall, high courts, etc.
- Recognize students who participate in Civic engagement programs
- Nonprofits e.g. Campus Votes could expand their college programs to create school specific programs as well.
I would also love to hear more tips from the readers!
About Anay Pant
I am a Junior at The Athenian High School in Danville, California. I got interested in civic engagement during the American Politics class I took last semester. The class had a profound effect on me. I was motivated to participate as a student poll worker in the Nov 2022 midterms. I wanted to continue with finding ways to motivate my peers to become aware and action oriented. I launched a civic engagement platform called Qrated (https://qrated.weblium.site/) last year with some success. I am working towards finding avenues to help me outreach my platform
On April 4th, I was awarded the Contra Costa County – Youth Hall of Fame Awards for Leadership & Civic Engagement by the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors. (See related article here)