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  • Yasmine Ganemtore

How Civics Education (or Lack Thereof) Shape Youth Political Engagement

By: Yasmine Ganemtore, CVP Communications Intern

In a world where the youth are the future, why are so many young people disinterested in politics and civic engagement? Youth apathy towards politics and civic engagement has long been a topic of concern and criticism. From older generations to politicians themselves, there is a questioning of where this lack of interest stems from. 

Specifically looking at Gen Z, the issue of apathy was brought to my attention during a recent class discussion on policy making processes. My professor posed the question of why so many young people seem disinterested in politics, leading to a variety of explanations from my peers.

One peer suggested that the lack of participation in civic duties, such as voting, could be attributed to a lack of awareness and accessibility. She proposed that young people might be more inclined to vote if the process were simplified, as many struggle to find information on polling locations, absentee ballots, and the voting process in general. One peer suggested that a lack of participation in civic duties, like voting, could be due to a lack of awareness and accessibility. She proposed that simplifying the voting process could increase young people's inclination to vote, as many struggle to find information on polling locations, absentee ballots, and the voting process in general. 

A survey conducted by HIT Strategies on behalf of Fair Elections Center’s Campus Vote Project supports this idea. The survey, which gathered insights from 1,000 college students nationwide, revealed that while nearly 60% of students find voting easy, over a quarter of them consider the lack of information on voting processes a significant issue. These students expressed a desire for increased education opportunities on voting within their college community.

However, I challenged this belief by emphasizing the importance of personal responsibility and initiative in seeking out this information. 

The issue of civic apathy, I argued, starts with the lack of education on these topics in high schools. 

According to a report from CivXNow in August 2023, a scan of state policies regarding civic education in high schools revealed varying requirements across the nation. In total, 40 states and the District of Columbia have mandated a separate civics course. Among these, six states require a full-year civics class, while 34 require a half-year course. Conversely, nine states - Alaska, Delaware, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Maine, Nebraska, New Mexico, Rhode Island, and Vermont - do not currently have a standalone civics requirement at the high school level.

A study conducted by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) underscores the significance of the role played by high school teachers in fostering student interest and participation in voting. The research findings suggest a correlation between high school students who were educated on voting and their subsequent engagement in civic activities. Those who recalled receiving guidance and encouragement to vote demonstrated a higher level of civic involvement, both in political and non-political realms. These individuals were also more inclined to volunteer and contribute financially to political campaigns, indicating their active engagement in the democratic process. This highlights the crucial role of schools in providing young students with knowledge about voting and politics during their high school years, enabling them to comprehend the significance of these aspects as they reach voting age and advance to higher education. 

In my experience attending high school in the Bronx, there was minimal emphasis on voting and civic engagement. Required courses were enforced only to meet state guidelines for graduation, specifically the completion of regents exams. These exams primarily covered social studies subjects such as U.S. History (1 credit), Global History and Geography (2 credits), Participation in Government (1/2 credit), and Economics (1/2 credit). To obtain a diploma, a minimum of 4 credits in these subjects is required by the New York State Education Department. As a student in New York, I took classes in all these subjects and sat for the corresponding regents exams. However, the focus on civic education ended there. No additional actions were taken to emphasize the importance of voting or provide guidance on how to start the voting process. 

Throwback to my high school days, of my amazing friends and I rocking our casual style on dress down day!

Contrasting this with friends from wealthier neighborhoods like Westchester, they were actively encouraged by teachers to register to vote and even held registration drives at school. While the lack of resources can indeed be a significant factor, particularly in impoverished neighborhoods, schools have the ability to take proactive steps to address the issue. Schools can establish partnerships with political campaigns and organizations to provide reliable resources, such as tools for voter registration drives and encourage students to volunteer with these organizations. Students can then gain a better understanding of candidates and their policies by engaging with these organizations. 

Civic organizations like New Voters and Civics Center are making a difference in high school education by integrating civic education into the curriculum. For example, New Voters has successfully contributed to high school voter registration, reaching over 300,000 students in 39 states. Similarly, Civics Center provides meet and greet events for schools, free voter registration drives, workshops on how to run drives, and nonpartisan resources for educators and administrators to support voter registration efforts. These organizations are examples of how civic education can be effectively integrated into high school coursework to prepare students for active citizenship in the future.

As per a CIRCLE report, a majority (57%) of youth aged 18-34 express an intention to vote in the 2024 presidential election, but certain demographic groups, such as Black youth (44%), nonwhite rural youth (48%), and youth without college experience (41%), show lower levels of enthusiasm for voting.

Of course, a lack of civic education in high school isn’t the only reason we’re seeing such high levels of apathy from young people. During our class discussion, the lack of trust in political leaders was highlighted by another student as a significant concern. The importance of politicians upholding their promises once in office to address social issues they campaigned on was emphasized. The disillusionment stemming from past experiences of feeling let down after political leaders failed to deliver on their commitments can lead to despondency and consequent low voter turnout, especially among young people in disadvantaged neighborhoods striving to enhance their communities through local or national elections. 

According to the CVP survey conducted by HIT Strategies, a significant portion of students from community colleges (40%), public universities (53%), and private colleges (51%) are dissatisfied with the national government. This dissatisfaction stems from a belief that their voices and concerns are not being heard or addressed by national leaders. While students may also express dissatisfaction with local and state governments, the level of distrust towards the national government is notably higher, leading many students to feel disillusioned and disengaged from the political process.

According to more data provided by CIRCLE, there was a decrease in voter turnout from 2018 to 2022, specifically in youth voter turnout. Nationally, the youth voter turnout decreased from 28% in 2018 to 23% in 2022. As one of my classmates pointed out, the availability and accessibility of resources significantly impact youth voter turnout. Michigan had the highest youth voter turnout in 2022, attributed to its efforts to make voter registration more accessible through automatic, online, and same-day registration. Conversely, states like Tennessee, Alabama, and Oklahoma had low voter turnouts due to the absence of same-day, automatic, or pre-registration options. Oklahoma lacks fully online voter registration, Tennessee enforces strict photo ID requirements, and Alabama lacks early, in-person voting opportunities.

In conclusion, combating voter apathy requires exploring various strategies that can make a difference and not simply relying on schools to provide civics education. One effective approach is for individuals to actively engage as poll workers, to contribute to the smooth functioning of the electoral process and ensure a positive voting experience for all. Additionally, emphasizing the importance of voting down ballot in local elections can have a significant influence on communities and bring about tangible change. Campus Vote Project, as an organization, is actively promoting these initiatives to foster civic engagement and combat voter apathy. We are creating a culture of active citizenship and amplifying the voices of individuals at the grassroots level. Together, these efforts are instrumental in creating a society where every voice is heard and every vote counts.

For those seeking further information or resources, feel free to visit our website, Campus Vote Project, which offers state-specific voting guides and information on polling locations for upcoming elections.




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