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  There’s no shortage of factors standing between youth and voter participation.  

“I wish that I knew more about how political parties actually work and how voting influences the decisions that the government makes. Why do certain races and classes seem to have more political influence than others? How does my one vote play into this array of government issues and matters?” said Monisha Cherry, a 25-year-old black woman from Ahoskie, North Carolina.

In 2012, when Cherry was 18, she cast her first and last ballot, for President Barack Obama.  

“I attended a predominantly white institution and they made it pretty clear that they did not want him in office. It motivated me to vote because I felt as if we needed a drastic change in our country, and I wanted to be part of that change,” she said.  

President Obama speaking to students at Columbia University.

Cherry was one of millions of youth—typically defined as folks 18 to 29 years old—who were mobilized by the Obama campaign. The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, an organization that conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans, found that young American voters preferred Barack Obama over John McCain 2 to 1 in the 2008 presidential election.

But after Cherry cast her ballot, she saw minimal change. Although she didn’t mention specific things she had wanted to see, she likely realized, like many of us, that a black president didn’t necessarily mean changes in a society founded on white supremacy. Racism was still rampant, jobs were still hard to find, and things were more or less unchanged. In 2016, like many black Americans, she decided against participating in the election after feeling unimpressed with both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Donald Trump obviously lacked qualifications and wasn’t going to turn out marginalized voters. But a cocktail of sexism, a connection to her husband’s legacy of contributing to mass incarceration, and her “superpredator” comments from the ‘90s convinced many folks that Clinton wasn’t worth showing up at the polls for, either.

People of all colors and creeds had lost faith in the system and ended up with more questions than answers after hearing both candidates’ platforms. Cherry’s electoral silence reflects a nation trend.

It all starts with a lack of civics education

In 2008, Obama received approximately 14.8 million votes from those under 30; but by 2012, he received 12.3 million—a 2.5 million drop in votes.

Cherry can’t recall any civic education before college and doesn’t know where to get answers to why some groups seem to have more political influence than others. Over the years, she has grown increasingly skeptical of the benefits of voting after witnessing the high levels of job insecurity in her hometown. In Ahoskie, the current median household income is just over $25,000 a year, and the unemployment rate is over 5%. Cherry is far from alone in her skepticism.

A Gallup poll from earlier this year shows that public trust in government, especially among young people, has reached a new low. Civic education, which happens to be the most effective way to increase transparency and understanding, is also on the decline.

Civic education has been proven to be critical to supporting democracy, but the issue has never been a priority in the United States. CIRCLE has found a strong positive relationship between education and voter engagement. The sooner we can give children a foundation in civics, the better.

In 1969, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a congressionally mandated project administered by the National Center for Education Statistics, began releasing the Nation’s Report Card in staggered years, an assessment of the state of education in a range of topics, including civics. Trends are tracked by studying data from 1998, 2006, and 2010, and assessing the understanding of fourth, eighth, and 12th graders. In the most recent set of comparisons, fourth grade understanding of civics has improved; no significant difference was seen in eighth graders; and 12th grade understanding had worsened. Similarly, each year, young people of color fared significantly worse when compared to their white counterparts.

Shaneice Simmons, associate director of civic engagement at Rock the Vote, says she believes the decline in civics education is one of many structural issues that impact the effectiveness of our democracy.

Cuts to civics education are a threat to our democracy

During the 2020 election, millennials and Generation Z will comprise over one-third of potential voters. As candidates take notice of issues that matter to the next generation—student loans, climate change, and healthcare reform—it’s vital that all Americans, especially youth, are educated on the process. It’s the only way to remain vigilant against voter suppression tactics. “The cutting of civics education that we have seen over the last few decades is a detriment to our democracy and a fundamental challenge that our public education system must address,” Simmons said.

In 2010, only 24% of 12th grade students were considered “at or above proficient in their understanding of civics” by NAEP. “Think about this—30 states, students are only required to learn about our democracy for one semester, and in 11 states civics isn’t required to be taught at all. When you look at the data, it couldn’t be more clear that we need more civics education across the board,” Simmons explained.

The United States is viewed as a democratic superpower, yet citizens have a subpar understanding of civics. A 2016 Annenberg Public Policy Center study found that one-third of Americans were unable to name any of the three branches of government. In that same study, only 26% were able to name all three.

The U.S. takes its role as a democratic superpower seriously and uses this role, it claims, to usher in democracy in countries across the globe—yet the American public is woefully undereducated on government and civil processes that comprise this democracy.

We proudly proclaim that one’s vote is their voice, and elections are held often. But for marginalized constituents, elections feel more symbolic than impactful. A growing number of individuals have lost trust in our political system. And a lack of transparency and of voter education is making this worse.

Lack of civics education is a tool of voter suppression

Civics education is especially important for the people who need social programs the most: people of color, the elderly, individuals with disabilities, and low-income folks. These groups are also the most likely to face barriers at the ballot box. Registration issues, voter ID laws, and laws barring felons from voting all shave off millions of potential voters. So does the lack of civics education.

Along with increased participation, increased knowledge about our government is necessary to promote access to the American Dream for marginalized individuals—especially those who have been excluded since childhood. It’s not possible to participate in, let alone benefit from, a political system you’re not given the resources to understand.

“It’s important that young people are informed of voting rights and history so they can confidently participate in elections and create an impact,” Shaneice Simmons said. “Oftentimes, young people don’t feel confident to engage in the political process because they don’t understand it.”

Research backs this up. Nearly 20% of young people reported not knowing enough to vote, and a large number of people don’t understand why—or if—their vote matters.

Voter engagement is a problem in the United States. Nearly 92 million eligible voters skipped out on the 2016 election. After the 2018 midterms, however, 47% of eligible voters came out to vote. Some elections were won by a just a handful of ballots.

Lack of civics education furthers racial inequity

The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is an organization founded in 1969 and comprised of civil rights lawyers and advocates working to secure racial equity and economic opportunity for all by fighting for fairness in a variety of issues, including voting rights. The committee says that the lack of voter rights education ultimately furthers racial inequity.

The organization has witnessed the low voter participation resulting from education gaps and barriers to registration in Illinois that ultimately silence voters. It anticipates obstacles related to voting with a criminal record, intimidation, and other factors that voters are at risk of facing when they lack education.

“It’s no coincidence that in every election, we hear about voter scams. People are told that their polling place has changed, or that Election Day is cancelled, or that they can win something for voting a certain way. These offenses often target marginalized communities, and they count on voters being confused enough to do as they’re told. It is important to honor the sacrifices made by the generations that came before us by fighting that kind of manipulation tooth and nail,” said Timna Axel, the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee’s director of communications.

These issues aren’t unique to Chicago. The negative consequences of subpar voter education are seen all across the nation. One misstep, especially for those on probation or parole for felony convictions, can have lifelong consequences.

One of the most high-profile examples of these consequences occurred in 2016 in Dallas, Texas. Crystal Mason, a black woman and former felon, was sentenced to five years in prison for voter fraud after casting a provisional ballot. Her vote was in violation of Texas laws governing felons’ voting procedures.  

Mason had been regularly reminded of the importance of voting by loved ones, so she cast her vote in the presidential election that year. Approximately three months later, she was informed that she had voted illegally, although she had not known she was in violation of the law by casting a ballot. She was arrested while meeting with her parole officer and charged with voting illegally. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Mason had signed a piece of paper without realizing that by doing so she was stating that she had never been convicted of a felony.

Mason thought she was fulfilling a civic duty, but the legal system treated it as a malicious criminal act. Her crime was failing to read the fine print—something we all do regularly.

For many, civics education begins too late

Mason’s experience is just one example of how the lack of voter education can negatively impact people in our society. Lack of voter education also limits marginalized folks’ ability to see themselves as viable political figures.

“I 100% feel that I would have been much more interested in being involved in politics had my teachers discussed it further in words I could understand—both as a voter and maybe someone involved in a campaign, or even someone who would run for office,” said Priscilla Blossom, a Latinx woman educated in Miami, Florida. Blossom only remembers two surface-level courses that addressed voting during her adolescence. The material lacked personal application as well as suggestions on civic involvement.

It’s important that democracy be explained in a way that empowers youth and people of color. If it doesn’t provide solutions to their everyday struggles, it’s pointless.

Maria Velasco, a Colombian and Korean American who was educated in southern Wyoming, doesn’t recall being informed about why voting matters and how it can impact one’s life until she got to college. “In my freshman year, I signed up for a Wyoming and American government class. We discussed current events, state and federal politics. The professor in that class encouraged us to exercise our right to vote,” she said.

The further she got into her courses as a social work student, the more important Velasco realized voting was. “For a SW policy class, we learned about policies that affect our communities at a local level and federal. We learned why voting is important, especially as social workers,” Velasco explained.

Exit polls have shown that education is predictive of party affiliation. People who are college-educated are more likely to vote Democratic. Education and wealth are fairly predictive of who will voteespecially in primaries.

Velasco says she was fortunate to have had a professor who inspired her to vote, but wonders about the millions of people who never attended college or had the opportunity to experience that type of professor. We have to start the education in civics as early as possible. Otherwise, for many people, it will come too late—or not at all.

Voting while poor is expensive. It requires time off work, transportation, and child care. But when you’re poor and undereducated, it’s also overwhelming. “I wish they would have taught us how to research candidates. I embarrassingly recall my first time voting and actually just voting for whoever’s name I liked in the Dem or Green Party,“ Priscilla Blossom said, reflecting on the challenge of deciding who to vote for in her first election.

Equal access to civics education increases access to representation. And representation brings hope for change

Nationally, there are many efforts to bring uniformity to local government processes and increase understanding of the political process. The Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is committed to increasing voters’ rights literacy in Illinois. It regularly encounters misinformation about polling places and election dates. To combat these misconceptions, whether malicious or not, it works to increase voters’ rights awareness.

“In every election, we run a voter protection hotline where voters in Illinois and Indiana can get on the phone with an attorney and get answers to questions about their rights as a voter. It’s no coincidence that in every election, we hear about voter scams,” Timna Axel explained. To combat false information, the committee hosts “Know Your Rights” trainings, which are geared toward marginalized populations and those whose lives have been impacted by incarceration.

“We monitor voting in Cook County Jail to ensure that citizens in pre-trial detention can still access their right to vote. Most recently, we lobbied for the Illinois state legislature to pass HB 2541 [“Civics in Prison”], a bill that will provide re-entering citizens with a nonpartisan civics peer education program within 12 months of their scheduled release. This bill was written with the participation of students in a correctional institution, and their lived experiences with poverty, policing, and criminal justice was invaluable to designing the program,” Axel continued.

Still, constituents shouldn’t have to wait until their vote is under threat to learn their rights. The earlier education can start, the better.

Rock the Vote’s program Democracy Class is a free one-period curriculum anchored in the history and significance of voting. It is one of a handful of efforts to inform and engage the next generation. It offers a boundary-free way to increase education and preregisters student to vote when they complete the program. It is offered in high school classrooms, but it’s intentionally adaptable so it can connect with individuals of a wide range of ages. Shaneice Simmons believes the program is perfectly designed to fill the gap between students and civic education. “Every day, we see that young people want to get involved, but don’t know how to. This program meets students in their own environment to help them understand what’s going on around them and how they can be full participants,” she said.

Democracy Class is a resource available to all regardless of age or location—all you have to do is sign up. Once you fill out the information, the organization will look into sending the curriculum material and teaching resources to almost any area.

Uncertainty about procedures and platforms is eroding the remaining trust in a government that has failed more of us than it has helped. More exposure to civics education will increase the likelihood that young people will vote, but it won’t re-create trust.

In addition to making the process easier, it’s up to the federal government to prove it’s worthy of our confidence.

It’s up to the rest of us to convince the next generation that voting is something to believe in. 

This story is part two of a series on voting rights by the author. Read part one here, and follow Prism to make sure you don’t miss the next story.

A. Rochaun Meadows-Fernandez is a Contributing Fellow at Prism and a diversity content specialist whose work can be read in The Washington Post, InStyle, The Guardian, and other places. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.   

Rochaun Meadows Fernandez

Rochaun Meadows Fernandez