Let Youth Voters Take the Wheel
Training youth to vote should be as important as teaching them to drive
By Robyn Lingo, Executive Director of Mikva Challenge DC, and Patricia Kapunan, Medical Director of the Adolescent Health Center, Children’s National Hospital
Think back to the day you got your driver’s license. Maybe you did a victory dance, after passing the road test on the first try. You probably took a class and spent hours on driving practice. If someone asked you, “Who taught you to drive?”, you probably have an answer.
Now, try to remember, who taught you to vote? Did you receive your first Voter Registration card with the same lead-up and fanfare that came with your driver’s license? Despite its central and sacred role in our democracy, the American right to vote is not often regarded with the same anticipation, celebration, and sobering weight of new responsibility that comes with operating a motor vehicle. Despite the disproportionate effort it takes to earn a driver’s license, compared to registering to vote, overwhelmingly more teens drive than show up at the polls. As with other disparities between youth of color and white youth, structural racism impacts both these rights of passage. Racial disparities in access to driver’s licenses and publicly funded driver’s education classes are mirrored in the access to quality civic education and voter registration efforts for youth of color.
Despite the promising trends of the 2018 midterms, and early indications of an incredible surge in voting rates for 18–29 years in this election, eligible teens have historically voted at alarmingly low rates, yet documented barriers to voting for youth are embarrassingly practical. Youth report abstaining from voting not out of a sense of apathy — they describe obstacles like not knowing where or how to vote, not having time off from school or work, or a ride to the polls. They report a lack of preparedness for voting decisions, as media can send confusing messages about candidates. In the 2018 mid-term elections, only 23% of eligible 18–19-year-old voters cast ballots. (In contrast, 60% of U.S. teenagers obtain their first driver’s license before age 18).
What if we, as a whole society, prepared youth voters, with the same effort and thoughtfulness with which we train new drivers?
As practitioners from very different disciplines — one of us is a pediatrician and one of us runs a youth civic engagement nonprofit — we have decades of experience supporting youth into adulthood. We immediately connected on our mutual respect, appreciation and deep care for young people in this critical transition from youth to adulthood. We both love working with teenagers. Why? Because they have a powerful and unique view of the world, of themselves and their role within that world, and witnessing youth discover and define their own potential for action is an extraordinary privilege.
Like learning to drive happens best through experiential learning, we know becoming an active civic participant happens best through hands-on experiences with community and civic leadership. These experiences can and should occur before youth are eligible to vote. At Mikva Challenge DC, that can mean students leading an effort to bring a recycling program to their school, advocating for more restorative justice practices at their school, running a youth voter registration drive or testifying at City Council. Through these experiences, young people learn vital skills, knowledge and behaviors that inform their participation as voters later in life. They learn about their own values, community’s strengths and needs, how their government works, and how community members make their voices heard to the people in power. Most importantly, young people learn that their voice matters and that they do have power to make change in their community. This sense of agency is a critical component to being a lifelong voter.
NAVIGATING THE STREETS
When we learned to drive, we needed people — parents, teachers, drivers ed instructors — to help us learn the rules of the road and help us decode the symbols around us. But coaching doesn’t need to be backseat driving. It is possible to teach someone how to use a map, or read street signs, without dictating their journey or destination. There needs to be a similar distinction when we prepare young people to be voters. We can teach youth how to navigate the civic landscape while supporting the process through which they can independently make their own, informed decisions.
There are many brilliant and dedicated educators who manage this distinction masterfully. By training young people in media literacy, e.g., discussing why campaigns use different words or slogans, they help students decode different phrases used by one party or another. They develop young people’s critical thinking and advocacy skills by engaging in authentic dialogue about what matters most to students and why. They provide time, opportunity and practice for respectful discussion and debate across differing opinions and ideas. These are all hallmarks of great civics education that supports, coaches and informs young people about how to be savvy consumers of political campaigns, independent decision makers, and knowledgeable voters, but never make the educator into a backseat driver.
This election year, jurisdictions have taken extra measures for voter safety, including expanding early and absentee voting and instituting additional precautions for in-person voting. These measures have introduced changes to a registration and voting process that may be already confusing or unfamiliar to young voters, especially new voters. It is important that youth understand that their right to vote, and to do so safely, has not been taken away by the current pandemic.
At Children’s National Hospital, offering youth voter education and support is part of a comprehensive health strategy for individual patients and their communities. On the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, disparities in health and health resources are strikingly obvious. Youth are a historically underrepresented age group and particularly vulnerable to negative social determinants of health. Supporting self-advocacy and community engagement is another way pediatric professionals help young patients grow into healthy adults, active participants in a healthy democracy in which they can help build better communities.
Here is our Road Map for supporting young people in becoming informed and life-long voters.
Adult family members can include youth in their own civic participation efforts, which can be as simple as having youth accompany them to vote, or discussing community issues that are important to the family.
Community Leaders should intentionally engage youth about community issues which impact them, recognize young people’s potential for contributing positively to change, and provide formal opportunities for engagement. They can give young people a voice in what happens at their after-school program, sport teams or faith organization so that we are all preparing young people to take on civic leadership in the wider world. Health professionals can talk with their adolescent patients about the societal issues that contribute to their health, and help them make connections between health, public policy and voting.
All educators (not just social studies teachers!) can support the civic education of youth. They can make connections between academic topics and students’ lived experiences, whether it be in civics class or a science class. Schools can promote voter registration with school-wide drives, and hold mock elections to get young kids practicing the act of voting.
All groups supporting youth should help identify practical barriers to voting and take time to help first-time and young voters get to the polls. Youth engagement efforts should not stop at voter registration but should be comprehensive and support youth to become informed decision makers and active community members.
Democracy will be at its best when all voices are heard, all votes counted and each voice and vote carry the same weight. We have not reached that vision yet, but we can. Starting with investing in our youth can help us reach that more perfect union.