Lessons in democracy
FairVote gives students an early voice

By Adam Fogel
Published November 16th 2007 in The Baltimore Sun

All students deserve an opportunity to register to vote before leaving high school, regardless of their parents’ voting habits, socioeconomic status or where they live. Today, our patchwork system of voter registration is leaving students behind by not giving everyone an equal chance to participate in the democratic process.

FairVote’s 100% Youth Voter Registration project seeks to ensure everyone has an opportunity to register to vote in the nonpartisan atmosphere of a classroom.

No systematic method for voter registration exists in the United States, but it isn’t random either. A U.S. Census report shows 61 percent of people in households that earn less than $20,000 are registered to vote, incontrast to over 85 percent registered in households that make over $100,000. Our nonpartisan, nonprofit organization (based in Takoma Park) develops policy solutions and innovative programming to give everyone an equal opportunity to get on the voter rolls and cast a meaningful ballot.

Working with a distinguished advisory committee, FairVote developed an innovative multimedia presentation and voting curriculum called Learning Democracy that teaches students the mechanics of participating in a democracy. The program goes beyond traditional civics lessons about governmental institutions, how a bill becomes law and political parties. Learning Democracy focuses on students’ roles within the democratic process and shows them that they can affect the way our system works. While most civics programs only teach “the way things are,” FairVote’s curriculum takes the next step, having students think about “the way democracy could be.” Students have an opportunity to play policy-maker and develop solutions to complex problems ranging from expanding voting rights to increasing youth participation in elections.

This school year, FairVote volunteers will go into high schools in Montgomery County and Prince George’s County to talk to students about how they can get involved in the political process and register to vote. Teachers across Maryland will receive the “Teacher’s Edition” of our curriculum so that they can incorporate our lessons about youth participation and election reform into their social studies classes. Giving teachers this kind of flexible supplemental programming encourages creativity and promotes students’ analytic development. We hope this program can serve as a model for other communities that are interested in increasing political engagement among their youth.

Some schools already do a great job of preparing their students for a life of active citizenship. Montgomery County, for example, has a full-time staff member at the Board of Elections who is dedicated to youth voter empowerment. Every year, students in Montgomery County’s middle schools and high schools participate in an election for their student representative to the school board, where they cast their ballots on the same voting machines used to vote for governor and president. Students also have a chance to register to vote if they are eligible.

Not all students, however, are lucky enough to go to schools that make an effort every year to register all eligible students. Many times, registering to vote largely depends on a motivated teacher going beyond his or her job description by bringing in a stack of voter registration applications. In other cases, a principal or superintendent makes school or district-wide efforts to ensure all students have a chance to register to vote. FairVote’s programming is a way to take the variability out of voter registration and ensure all schools in all counties have a standardized and systematic procedure in place to register all eligible students to vote.

Citizens will never know the full promise of their community unless everyone has a voice in the process and a seat at the table. By working in local high schools, FairVote hopes to create programming for teachers and best practices for policy makers that will give everyone an equal opportunity to participate in our democracy.