Getting Students Engaged Through Voter Registration

Today is National Voter Registration Day, and it is critical that we as principals support voter registration efforts in the school as we are preparing the next generation of the workforce and electorate. President Franklin D. Roosevelt stated that “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”

We must ensure students understand the cherished right to cast a vote as a crucial, meaningful way to express themselves and support the issues they care about in shaping our society. It is critical that our U.S. history and government teachers be provided access to resources that help students understand why it’s important to register themselves, their peers, and their families to vote. We must go beyond the highly visible national office elections and help students also understand the impact of state and local issues on their community and their future. They need to see the direct connections made by elected officials and their decisions on pressing topics like the looming student debt, funding for higher education, the economy, and addressing inequalities in our society.

Historically, young adults (18–29) have voted at lower rates than each of the other generational cohorts. In the past two election cycles, however, we have seen this age bracket mobilized by their concern for social justice, environmental issues, and concerns for equity, resulting in significant increases in both youth voter registration and youth voter turnout in several states. As we see this trend, we must remember that as this generational group is more digitally connected, they are also less likely to do things such as pursue a driver’s license, which has traditionally been the prime mechanism and location for voter registration. This has become a de facto barrier to registering and voting in this new paradigm. It is one that we can counteract by shifting that introduction to voter registration access to our middle level and high schools.

Having served as principal at my high school over the past two election cycles, we have sought to develop students’ understanding of the impact of voter engagement and voter apathy. We have provided opportunities for students to engage in “Girls State” and “Boys State” to learn more about democracy in action and develop opportunities for them to be involved in advocacy by contacting their lawmakers regarding pending legislation and issues. Each year, we provide connections for our students 16 years and older to be a part of the election process and serve as poll workers. We have partnered with our city offices and the district offices of our state and federal representatives to provide volunteer hours and community service opportunities in this area. The mutual benefit is an “in the trenches” understanding of a representational government and an encouragement of selfless service, volunteerism, and civic engagement.

Due to COVID-19, we’ve had to adjust some of the plans from previous years. Our National Honor Society students are working on developing their own personalized digital voter registration pages and reaching out to students eligible to register to vote as well as reaching out to adults in our community who have yet to embrace their civic responsibility. They have utilized social media platforms to spread the word of the importance of being a registered and informed voter.

As your students seek a service project of value, I encourage you to engage with your National Honor Society students, student government, student council, and/or site leadership groups on campus and introduce this new Online Voter Registration Drive (OVRD) tool from NASSP and DoSomething.org that students can easily use. The OVRD allows students to easily register themselves and their friends online, track the number of people who have registered using their personalized link, track registrations for their school and its NHS, NJHS, or NatStuCo chapter, and also be entered to win scholarships. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing women the right to vote, let us continue to champion the right to vote for all, including our youth!

Derrick Lawson is the principal of Indio High School and the NASSP California State Coordinator. He was the 2012 California State Principal of the Year. follow him Twitter (@derrickLawson62).

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