Close Menu

Did Civic Education Laws Affect Youth Turnout in 2012?

As a group, states that strengthened their civic standards have higher youth turnout, though the biggest shift was between 2004 and 2008

One of the ways that states may try to influence political engagement is by requiring civic education in their K-12 schools. Substantial evidence shows that high-quality civic education boosts students’ interest in politics, their knowledge of political issues, and their voter turnout after they turn 18. But it is less clear that the existing state policies for civic education influence what happens in classrooms in ways that may affect voting.

In the aftermath of the 2012 election, CIRCLE compared youth turnout (for citizens between the ages of 18 and 29) in three groups of states, which we had identified in a recent analysis for the S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation. The first group had strengthened their requirements for high school civics or American government courses or statewide tests in civics. The second group already had some requirements in place and did not change them between 2004 and 2012. The third group weakened their course or testing requirements between 2004 and 2012. (Just three small states had no course requirements or tests during this whole period, and they are omitted because they are too few for meaningful analysis.)

As the graph shows, states that weakened their requirements saw a significant turnout decrease between 2004 and 2008, and the turnout remained low this year. States that strengthened their civics requirements began with the highest turnout before they changed their requirements. Their turnout then rose until 2008 and fell thereafter. States that had some requirements but did not change then saw very modest changes in turnout.

Overall, it appears that states that strengthened or maintained their civic education requirements had higher youth turnout in 2012 than states that had cut their civic education requirements, but the turnout difference was already evident before any recent changes in laws. In fact, states that have decreased their legislative support for civics since 2004 already saw lower turnout in every presidential election from 1992 to 2004, when compared to states that have recently strengthened their civics requirements.

It is a common pattern that states with strong traditions of civic participation are the first to adopt legislation to promote civic participation (whether in the domains of education or voting laws). That makes it difficult to estimate whether new policies actually boost engagement. CIRCLE currently has a large youth survey in the field that will help to identify more precisely the impact of civic education laws on youth knowledge and voting in the 2012 election.