Election season is upon us. High school civics and government teachers play a special role in introducing students to civic engagement, encouraging our young people to cast their first votes regardless of party or candidate. And this 2020 election cycle has special challenges for high school teachers seeking to convince students of the efficacy of voting. Here are some resources and lessons that may help you.
In my classroom, election years began with lessons on the demographic data of voting groups, the type presented by the US Elections Project website. Unfortunately, this data shows young people 18-29 vote in the lowest percentages of any other age group. For example, in the 2018 midterms, only 36% of 18-29 year olds voted. Even at the high point of youth voting in the 2008 Presidential election, only about half of all eligible young adults voted. Meanwhile, voters over 60 years old, consistently have the highest voter participation rates.
This demographic data became the basis for our classroom discussion: Why do young people vote at lower rates compared with other age groups? What is the impact of low voter turnout by young voters for the issues most important to their futures? What can be done to increase voter turnout among 18-29 year olds?
Then it was time to get creative: my students designed posters, as part of a school-wide campaign to increase voter registration for eligible 18 year olds. Some of my students were inspired to become poll workers, too.
Next, my students began a discussion of issues that were most important to them, be it, education, immigration, gun violence, or racial discrimination. One way to get your students looking at election issues is by having them take the iSideWith 2020 Presidential Election quiz. On this non-partisan website, students choose their own positions on a broad variety of issues and determine their importance. They can also compare their policy positions with the contending Presidential candidates.
You can have your students discuss and debate their policy priorities with classmates as I did with my diamond ranking activity for Presidential Priorities. Here is an example I designed from the 2016 election, easily adapted for the 2020 cycle. In addition, you might want to have your students participate in the "KQED Youth Media Challenge: Let’s Talk About Election 2020. This project invites, "middle and high school students to share their personal perspectives through audio and video commentaries that span topics like immigration, college affordability, healthcare and climate change."
In addition, the 2020 election has special challenges for high school teachers seeking to convince students of the importance of voting. News headlines and social media repeat inaccurate or confusing stories about our upcoming election which may discourage young, first-time, voters. For example, students may want to know: Is there widespread voter fraud? Are voting machines rigged? Can the post office handle widespread mail-in voting? The Brennan Center for Justice is an excellent website to address these issues, particularly their article, “Dirty Tricks: 9 Falsehoods that Could Undermine the 2020 Elections”.
For teachers who want to prepare for in-depth discussions of historic and current voter suppression tactics used primarily against African Americans, I’d recommend two excellent books: Carol Anderson’s One Person, No Vote and Our Time is Now by Stacey Abrams. Your students can read these books, too, or watch Abrams new film on voter suppression called, ALL IN: The Fight for Democracy. She also has an excellent website on voting called, Fair Fight. And to inspire your students to combat voter suppression and vote, have them view the More Than A Vote website, led by Lebron James and other well-known athletes.
As the fall horse race develops, students can read up-to-date polls on Real Clear Politics or FiveThirtyEight. They can follow the electoral map with 270 to Win.
The Electoral College is always one of the most difficult topics for government teachers to explain. Our students were raised with the democratic ideal that “majority rules”, yet they were freshmen in 2016 when Hillary Clinton lost the presidency to Donald Trump, despite winning the popular vote. The PBS station KQED has an excellent lesson plan on Debating the Electoral College. It includes links to several clear educational videos on how the Electoral College works. In addition, using a variety of their materials, students debate the essential question, “What are the origins of the Electoral College and what is its place in American politics? Does the Electoral College limit or further democracy?”
This November we will choose our President. The stakes couldn’t be higher for our students and for our nation.