As the election nears, trends suggest that young people are now more inspired to vote than they have been since at least the 2008 presidential election. More than 1 million Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 have already either cast early votes or filled in absentee ballots in 2020 – including more than 500,000 in battleground states. And in some states such as Michigan where some 76,000 young people have already voted – compared to just 12,800 at the same point in 2016 – the number of young voters has already outstripped the margin of victory in the previous election.
The confluence of a global pandemic, economic uncertainty, widespread and ongoing protests of racial injustice, the recent completion of the decennial census, and an open U.S. Supreme Court seat have made the contest over who gets to lead our nation both inescapable and highly relevant to our daily lives. Emotions are high on both sides of the aisle. The political and social climate is, no doubt, influencing massive interest among young people, including those under the age of 18 who cannot yet vote.
The intense public interest in what happens on Nov. 3 presents a unique opportunity for those of us in the civic education field to help educate all voters, including future voters, about how and why this process is so important to our constitutional democracy.
Right now, our political process has the attention of our young people. It’s up to the civic education community, educators, and nonprofits to take their interest and help young people make sense of the commotion unfolding on their screens. We all have an opportunity and an obligation to make sure that young people walk out of this election cycle more informed and more energized to engage in politics.
That requires empowered civic educators, and that's what we do at iCivics. Our Election HQ is a one-stop-shop for civic educators – and students of all ages (including adults!) – to learn more about our electoral process.
The iCivics game “Cast Your Vote” is a simulation of a local election that shows students firsthand how to evaluate candidates, their qualifications, and their arguments. It lets them attend simulated town halls and debates, research candidates’ voting records, endorsements, and messaging and compare and evaluate how well candidates have kept their pre-election promises.
While the virtual debates and town halls we’ve watched may not be model examples of civility, using a simulation allows students to go through the process in a safe space – and not as a spectator, but as one who gets to play an active role in the same process, only with more kid-friendly content.
Our “Win the White House” game teaches the fundamentals of how a presidential campaign is run, from picking a platform and the basics of fundraising to polling and advertising strategies. “Win the White House” was played over 3.9 million times in the lead-up to the 2016 election.
Think of these games as a driver’s education course on a closed circuit rather than sending kids without licenses out on the freeway with no prior experience.
For those closer to voting age who want to be more actively involved in the political process, iCivics offers our “Students Power Elections Guide,” which was created by working with a diverse group of high school students. Our for-students, by-students guide walks young people through the process of voter registration, how to decipher a ballot, and how to decide which candidates to support. For students not yet eligible to vote, it helps to prepare them for when it’s their turn to get behind the wheel of our democracy.
For teachers who are brave enough to discuss candidates in their classrooms, we’ve created lesson plans such as a “Candidate Report Card,” which is designed to foster in-class conversation in a safe, non-partisan way, and “Voting: Will You Do It?” which helps students investigate differences in voting by state, understand current issues, and decide for themselves if voting is something they will do. Our “2020 Candidate Bios Guide” allows students to compare candidates and their campaigns.
And if you or your school administration are looking for professional development tools to prepare for discussions on controversial topics, including this election, we recommend these free videos and guides.
This is an incredibly complicated election. Teaching it has been a challenge for most every school – to the point that some school districts and teachers will not even broach the subject because it is so polarizing. But this is a crucial election in our nation’s history, which makes it an important teaching moment – a moment to engage our young people in our democratic process, now and for the future. It is in the classroom where students learn to be informed and engaged citizens. If they do not have opportunities to learn about and practice these skills, where are they going to learn them?
Julie Silverbrook is the Senior Director of Strategic Partnership and Constitutional Scholar in Residence at iCivics. Silverbrook served as executive director of the Constitutional Sources Project (ConSource) in Washington, D.C., from 2012 to 2020. She regularly writes and lectures on the U.S. Constitution and its history, as well as the importance of civic education to the health of the American republic. She holds a J.D. from the William & Mary Law School and a B.A. in Political Science from The George Washington University.