Voting is a right, but it's also a process. Many people are baffled by the process, and find it easier to just skip it. Here's one solution:
Make sure that kids are taught how to vote!
If we make voting a familiar process that children look forward to participating in, they will be more likely to become consistent voters as adults.
These measures can get young people who are soon to enter the electorate one step closer to feeling comfortable with voting.
One high-leverage technique is to get voter education included in your state's teaching standards. Usually standards are updated on a rotating cycle, so go to your state's board of education website and find out when the social studies standards are up for revision, and what the public input process is for that. Then use it! Often almost anybody can give input directly.
If there is no easy public input process, find out who has access and feed your input through them. Tell them to require teachers to review actual ballots with students and discuss things like:
1. What a ballot looks like and how it is filled out.
2. What to expect on a ballot in addition to the highly publicized races (local races, judgeships, nonpartisan races, ballot initiatives).
3. How it is OK to not vote on every item on the ballot (a surprising number of people don't vote because they think they should fill out every item).
4. How many different ways a person can vote (mail, early at courthouse, at polling place, etc.).
5. What surprising ways they can invalidate their votes, such as by making an incorrect mark, folding or putting more than one ballot in the same envelope (check local regulations).
6. How hard women worked to get the right to vote in the US (hint: show the movie Iron-Jawed Angels).
7. What obstacles to voting they might encounter, and how to overcome them.
8. Why every vote matters. Don't just tell them how to vote, inspire them to do so!
If working through the school system curriculum doesn't excite you, try offering to bring a presentation into a school. You can do this by bringing in a voting machine and/or other materials as prompts as a guest speaker in their classrooms. Engage the students by asking them if they know where their local voting location is, or if they have ever seen a real ballot.
Check with your secretary of state's office and/or your local county clerk for supplies; they should be more than happy to help you. There also are many online resources, such as:
Don't stop with school classroooms. You can also address groups such as Girl or Boy Scout troops and 4H clubs. Overworked parents leading these kids' clubs are always very grateful for a free program.
You know what most kids ever get as voting education? Mock elections in school. These are hardly enough, because they:
a) Are only held during presidential election years.
b) Almost always show only the candidates for president, and then only those from the two primary parties.
c) Almost never use a ballot that looks anything like what they will actually see in a real polling place.
d) Don't require the students to fill out the ballot according to local rules (Many just let the kids put an "x" or check mark instead of filling in an oval or punching a hole. This can lead students to believe that any old way to fill out a ballot will get it counted.).
And these mock elections are not even accompanied by the critical context suggested in 3-8 above.
We need to engage youngsters in voting, not just let them play pretend with it.
Expecting people to grow up knowing how to vote after a typical US school's offering of voter education is like expecting them to know how to swim after merely trying on a bathing suit.
I know, school curriculum requirements are overloaded as it is. And I know, kids have civics classes and can and often do accompany their parents to the polling places. But we need to make the understanding of and the desire to exercise the voting process ingrained in our kids' education in a more systematic way to make sure it really sinks in.
If students learn the voting process in school, or in clubs or other social gatherings, they will be more invested in doing it when the time comes. That's the power of learning in groups; it tends to lead to follow-through.
We should think seriously about voter education in this country the way we do about driver education. No one would put a child whose only experience with driving is a video game behind the wheel of a real automobile. Yet we let children turn 18 with little to no voting education and expect them to figure out the hows, whens and whys of voting in the US, as if by magic.
For those of us who have been voting for years, it seems like casting a ballot is a no-brainer. But voting in America is about to get far more complicated, and turnout in the US continues to be abysmal. Let's get ahead of the problem by taking the initiative in our communities to provide voter education. It's worth a try.
Because if there's one group we'd like to get out to the polls, it's the youth vote. And once we do, they'll keep going back, because voting is habit-forming. Not only that, but they'll be more likely to teach their children to vote. Voter education is one of those gifts that keep on giving.
And the good news is, every one of us can give this gift to our youth. Today.