From the Classroom to the Ballot Box

By Heather Smith, John I. Wilson and Les Francis

Think back to the day you turned 16 and got your driver’s license, especially that picture of you with your trendy haircut, greasy forehead, and brace-covered teeth. Flash forward five years to the time you bought your first beer at 21, by which point you thankfully had learned to brush your hair, wash your face, and wear your retainers.

But what about that teenage year that falls so quietly in between? Nothing on your license changes when you turn 18, but it should really be a far more celebratory occasion than turning 16 or 21. Finally bestowed upon you is the right to have a voice in America’s democracy: You earn the right to vote.

Almost 13,000 young people turn 18 every day, and by 2012, the Millennial generation will make up 24% of the voting age population. Since there is no systematic way to make sure these young people are learning how to navigate the process and getting registered to vote, the most common reason they don’t participate is that they don’t realize they have to register and, thus, often do so after it is too late.

The problem is then reinforced throughout their early adulthood as campaigns are still directed to middle-aged voters, and young people are far less likely to feel like they are part of the conversation. That is, unless we work to speak to young people directly about the importance of making their voices heard through the ballot box.

Forty years ago, educators and students fought side-by-side to win the right to vote for 18-year-olds, the same age group that the government had previously deemed old enough to fight in wars and pay taxes, but still too young to vote for the leaders imposing these duties upon them.

Les Francis (front), Mel Myles (left rear) and Tom Hipple, along with coalition president Paul Minarchenko. (from the Christian Science Monitor, April 2, 1969)

If you were 18, you could be drafted to fight in Vietnam and were obligated to pay taxes on your apartment, but you were still treated like a child and could not vote for the people making these decisions for you.

On March 23rd, 1971, students and educators across the country finally made Congress listen to them with the introduction of the 26th Amendment to lower the voting age to 18, aligning the duties imposed by the government with the right to vote for its leaders.  Forty years later, we have to ensure that their hard work was for a reason.

So what if we took one day, once a year in every high school and spoke with students about the history of voting rights and their participation in our democracy? What if we inspire a new generation of students to carry on the legacy of students from forty years ago? We’ll engage thousands of students from across the country, from big cities to little towns, from class presidents to star athletes, from every corner of every state, and register them to vote.

Democracy Class does just that. It’s a 45-minute civic education lesson taught through music, pop culture, and video that works to engage young people in a way that’s relevant to their lives in a way that textbooks are not. On March 23, 2011, Rock the Vote in partnership with the National Education Association is celebrating the first-annual Democracy Day, and hundreds of teachers around the country will teach Democracy Class to their high school students.

Looking back to the fight that gave these students the ability to register on Democracy Day, led by groups like the National Education Association’s Project 18, it is a reminder of the lasting impact young people can have on our country.

Coming on the heels of a historical period such as the 1960s, characterized by its activism, the 26th Amendment remains an example of how young people can work within the system and use it to achieve the change they seek. It is the gift of one dynamic generation to those that followed, creating the foundation of lasting youth engagement.

Research continues to prove that civic education and early participation in elections creates a habit of ongoing engagement, which is why it is necessary to target this generation of high school students to bring them into the political process and encourage their involvement at an early age. With school budgets being cut and civics education being scaled back in high schools, we all must commit to teaching today’s youth about what it means and how to participate as a voting citizen in our democracy.

It’s not always an election year, but every day is someone’s 18th birthday. Our work in determining whether each newly-eligible voter makes a life-long commitment to participate in every election plays a vital role in ensuring that America’s next generation is heard in 2012 and in shaping their futures.

Heather Smith is President of Rock the Vote
John I. Wilson is Executive Director of the National Education Association
Les Francis is a public affairs consultant, first Director of the National Education Association’s Project 18, and a California Teachers Association activist.

Join us and participate in Democracy Day!