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Engaging Our Youngest Citizens

Civics Education, Elections and the Youth Vote

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jeffrey Zimmerman
August 4, 2015 

The 2016 presidential election is just a little over 15 months away. With approximately 20 or so candidates between both the Democrat and Republican parties running for their respective nominations, learning as much as possible about the candidates can be an arduous task for even the most dedicated political aficionado. But what about the youngest members of the constituency who will vote for the first time next November? How will these young citizens decipher the voluminous amount of information that will pour in through television, radio, newspaper and social media?

In an article titled, “Learning by doing?: The role of political learning activities in promoting youth political engagement,” Avril Keating discusses how England introduced a “citizenship” course into the national curriculum. One of the key innovations of the citizenship curriculum was that it promoted not only education about citizenship but also education through citizenship – learning by doing, through active, participative experiences in the school or local community and beyond. Can the United States implement a similar course into our education system?

Zimmerman aug 15

Statistics prove that presidential elections bring higher voter turnout to the polls. But  how can we educate our youth about the importance of non-presidential elections? This can be done by teaching them about civics, politics, the Election College and the importance of voting in every election.

Here is an example why voting in a non-presidential election is important. During the 2014 midterm elections, the Republicans regained control of the U.S. Senate and the U.S. Congress picked up more Republican seats. Now I am not arguing that the Democrats lost these seats because younger voters did not turn out. However, this example illustrates why it is important to vote during every election. All votes count toward making a difference at all levels of politics.

In a 2012 PS: Political Science & Politics article titled “Growing social inequalities in youth civic engagement? Evidence from the National Election Study,” authors Laura Wray-Lake and Daniel Hart argue that social inequality is an obstacle for civic engagement because educational and economic resources grant advantages in the civic domain. Associations between socioeconomic disparities and civic engagement have been widely documented among adults as well as youth and for a range of behaviors including volunteering, voting and other political activities. For a moment, let us assume that their hypothesis is valid and we agree that social inequality creates an obstacle for certain classes of people when it comes to the political process and all underlying areas such as the voting process. So how do we, as a society, address this issue of social inequality surrounding the voting process?

We must do a better job of introducing a curriculum in high schools nationwide that discusses civics, the political process and elections. This will help students long after they graduate. As they become old enough to vote and participate in our democracy, they will have a rudimentary foundation to build upon before they cast their votes at the polling stations.

As a society, we have an obligation to prepare our youth for all of life’s challenges. This includes becoming engaged and active citizens. By learning more about elections and the voting process, we are preparing of youngest citizens to become future leaders. However, we must present these lessons in an unbiased and nonpartisan manner so they can learn about all political parties and the processes involved in voting officials into office. This will help them make fair and balanced decisions.

Author: Jeffrey R Zimmerman Ph.D (ABD) in public policy and administration from Walden University completed his dissertation titled, “The Impact of Supervisor-Subordinate Exchange on State Government Employees.”  He currently serves as the director of processing services within the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles. Zimmerman can be reached via email at [email protected].

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