Education News

More students are politically engaged. But are they registered to vote?

By Danielle Sklarew

Mark Alvarez, a government and economics teacher from Laguna Beach, Calif., constantly reiterates to his audience of high school seniors that they are being out-voted by older generations.

“I make a lot of comments like ‘who gets out there and votes?’ Any student who has ever taken my class knows that statistic wise, it’s the older people that turn out to vote. I want my students to understand that it’s important for young people to be politically active too, and that they can make a difference when they see something they don’t like” said Alvarez.

Students of California teacher Mark Alvarez engage in a creative lesson about the U.S. Supreme Court.

As an educator, he teaches students not only about the political process but how politics are relevant to their own lives. Maybe that’s why for the past 15 years, Alvarez has successfully registered almost every student enrolled in his classes.

Educators’ ability to register high school students to vote is not uniform across the United States. States and even districts have their own rules on how voter registration can be integrated into classrooms, and they range from very progressive to restrictive.

California state law, where Alvarez teaches, allows 16- and 17-year-olds to pre-register to vote, ensuring that educators of seniors can help all students register, regardless of whether they have turned 18 yet. Other states, like Pennsylvania, encourage student voter registration by awarding high schools the Governor’s Civil Engagement Award when at least 65 percent of eligible students are registered. Minnesota provides teachers a comprehensive guide outlining how they to register their students.

Texas laws are also very progressive in encouraging high school student voter registration. Texas Election Code requires every high school in the state to distribute voter registration applications to eligible students at least twice a year. However, not all schools comply, and some students never have the opportunity at school to register to vote.

David Ring, a government teacher in Lubbock, is a Texas educator who leads the charge in complying with this voter registration law in his own school. Ring is Coronado High School’s deputy registrar, meaning he is the only educator at his high school who can legally return student voter registration forms once they are completed.

“Being a government teacher, I have a captive audience,” said Ring, “As I register students, I can turn it into a real-world lesson, such as explaining Texas open primaries, which accounts for why voter registration cards do not ask voters to designate a party.”

Alvarez similarly does not restrict his efforts at simply registering his students.

“You can pass out 36 registration forms and get all of your students registered, but it is ineffective if they’re not fired up to actually do something with it,” said Alvarez.

At Laguna Beach High School, after a school year of working to make his lessons relevant to the students’ lives personally, Alvarez tasks his students with completing a civic engagement project of their choice after they finish their AP Government exam. This year, students in Alvarez’s class completed projects, such as petitioning their city council for a stop sign, and advocating for clean water by educating younger students about its importance.

“We have to show kids that their voice matters, and the choices they make matter,” said Alvarez, “As teachers, we are facilitating them to make those choices, whether that is registering them to vote or providing them the date their city council meets.”

Laws in other states make it intimidating for some educators to try to register their own students.

In Florida in 2011, one teacher was threatened with a $1,000 fine for not complying with the specifics in her state law when she did not meet a 48-hour deadline to return applications that had been completed by students. While she was not actually fined, as her mistake was unintentional, this instance likely discouraged other educators from organizing voter registration opportunities in their own classrooms.

Ring offered advice to other educators who are considering introducing student voter registration to their own schools but may have reservations.

“It’s easy to be intimidated about these types of things, but if teachers are informed and they’re following the policy, they have nothing to be afraid of,” said Ring, “As far as getting started, start asking questions. Figure out what is already happening on your campus, figure out what the state and district policies are, and go from there.”

Both Ring and Alvarez also emphasized that their voter registration efforts are absolutely non-partisan.

Students often ask both teachers about their own political party identification, but neither educator reveals the answer. To Alvarez and Ring, they see the importance of equipping students with an understanding of all sides of an argument and letting students make their own unbiased opinions on politics and voting.

“Registering someone is not in itself partisan, it is just getting people signed up. What they do with that is a whole other thing,” said Ring.

Alvarez describes the reactions he gets from his students, who not only register to vote but become active participants in the political system.

“The most rewarding part for me is when I see some of the knowledge and confidence I gave them from lessons and little public speaking exercises in class and watch them go outside of the four walls of the school,” said Alvarez. “To see my students standing on their own two feet and having their own voice is so gratifying.”

Educators who are interested in learning how to register students to vote at their own schools are encouraged to visit the website of When We All Vote, a new non-partisan non-for-profit organization that encourages voter registration for eligible Americans. They have resources for educators that offer information and ideas on how to expand voter registration efforts in schools and classrooms.

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