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Growing Voters Year-Round: Program Examples to Build Youth Engagement

Organizations can and should engage young people beyond and between elections in order to strengthen their democratic skills and their ties to local communities.

In order to support more young people in growing into voters and community leaders, organizations need to shift away from a transactional approach to youth electoral engagement toward a more developmental approach. To this end, CIRCLE highlights the imperative that these organizations not only work in the months around an election but year round. This can look like providing access and exposure to opportunities to learn about elections beyond the traditional election season, strengthening connections to the community so that you can reach more youth, or helping young people to develop the attitudes and skills needed for democratic participation. 

CIRCLE Growing Voters

Released in 2022, the CIRCLE Growing Voters report introduces a new framework to transform how communities and institutions prepare youth for democracy. It includes major recommendations for organizations across sectors to do this work more equitably and effectively.

What does that look like in practice? Below are three examples of organizations doing creative year-round youth voter engagement which can be very different from more traditional, election-season voter outreach efforts:

  • Forward Montana hosts peer skillshare events to build a sense of community among young people, especially those who are most likely to feel disconnected from political and civic spaces. 
  • The Arizona Civics Coalition hosts participatory budgeting in K-12 schools alongside teachers and student leaders, teaching democratic knowledge and skills in a setting where young people can see the direct impact of their participation.  
  • NextUp Oregon also uses participatory budgeting, which not only builds democratic skills and dispositions among their base, but also lays the groundwork for future electoral advocacy. 

Forward Montana’s Community-Building Peer Skillshare Events 

Forward Montana hosts a wide variety of activities throughout communities in the state, from voter registration and candidate forums to canvassing trainings and legislative debriefs, but their work doesn’t end with electoral engagement. Just as important as their work supporting young people’s political participation and power are their efforts to build connections with young people and their communities, with a major emphasis on fun. The organization’s Instagram account is covered with colorful invites to trivia nights, craft nights, and zine release events. 

Forward Montana also hosts peer-led skillshare events, which started as an entry point into the organization for LGBTQ2S+ youth but has since been expanded to community members of all identities. For one event, they partnered with two local mutual aid organizations to teach participants about both gardening and mutual aid, while another taught young people to make bread. The skillshares are led by community members that receive a $100 stipend; some of these partners are connected with a local organization, helping to strengthen the local ecosystem of youth engagement. 

While they do use these events to conduct voter registration, distribute resources like voter guides, and educate about what’s happening in state politics, this isn’t the primary goal. Izzy Milch, Senior Advocacy Manager at Forward Montana, says:

This program is part of seeing young voters as whole people in need of a community and trying to meet that need—showing up for them before we ask them to show up at the ballot box.

Especially for groups like LGBTQ2S+ youth who may feel excluded from electoral politics and from their communities, events like this are a great way to bring new people into Forward Montana’s network in a manner that is, as Milch put it, “more authentic and less intimidating than other forms of engagement.” 

The intention behind these events underscores Forward Montana’s diagnosis of a problem that the CIRCLE Growing Voters framework also tries to address. Even when a significant amount of opportunities for electoral learning and engagement are offered in a community, many young people may not be initially interested in or feel welcome at these events. In fact, CIRCLE’s post-election survey in 2022 found that over half of 18- to 29-year-olds don’t feel qualified to participate in politics. Forward Montana is creating new pathways into electoral engagement by building relationships first and drawing connections to elections, voting, and other forms of civic engagement later. That way, young people who don’t necessarily see themselves as civically engaged or political can get plugged into this work. 

Participatory Budgeting in Arizona K-12 Schools

In over 60 Arizona schools across the K-12 grade range, students get a say over part of the school’s budget, developing and voting on proposals that are implemented by the end of the school year. This democratic process, called participatory budgeting (PB), exists in many towns and organizations across the globe. When it specifically engages young people, such as through school participatory budgeting, it can instill the value and impact of democracy and of their voices in political processes well before they reach voting age. Furthermore, by funneling a piece of the school’s existing budget through a system of student input (on average, $1 per student, from $2,000-5,000 total allocated from elsewhere in the school budget), school administrators can ensure that they are funding projects that actually benefit and support the direct needs and desires of students.      

The program stems from a collaboration between Arizona State University’s Participatory Governance Initiative, the Center for the Future of Arizona, the Arizona Civic Coalition, and local schools. Their partnership supports schools to start participatory budgeting with a piece of their existing budget. The initiative provides schools with resources and offers drop-in hours, but the goal is to ultimately have schools be able to sustain this work on their own. This approach to collaboration—having an external partner build capacity within another institution for this kind of program—is a highly sustainable practice that can expand opportunities to youth throughout a community ecosystem.

Tara Bartlett, the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Arizona Civics Coalition, explained that this program derives its power from its malleability and its ability to position students who aren’t “the usual suspects” into leadership roles in a student steering committee. Rather than turning to youth who are already engaged in, for example, student government, teachers help conduct outreach to students who are less predisposed to take advantage of civic opportunities. By recruiting special education and Spanish-language teachers as school site sponsors, the program intentionally tries to reach youth who are often left out of leadership opportunities. The steering committee, which tends to range from 12-35 students depending on school level and size, contributes to designing the process for their school by crafting a timeline and planning outreach to the broader school community. This student-driven process is able to adapt to the unique context of any particular school, highlighting one of the core benefits of incorporating youth leadership in programming.

Beyond its direct impact on budgeting, the program spurs growth in young people’s civic knowledge, attitudes, skills, and practices. Students almost always show an increase in their intention to vote as soon as they are able to; when the program is carried out in high schools, leaders ensure that there is a voter registration group on site to register students for the next election. Bartlett explained that increases in civic skills especially stood out among students with disabilities, whose intentional inclusion in these programs can help mitigate the fact that they often lack access to social studies and civics courses.

NextUp Oregon’s Participatory Budgeting

Beyond schools, other community- or issue-based organizations can also use participatory budgeting as a way to Grow Voters between elections. Next Up, an Oregon youth-led group focused on civic engagement, advocacy, and leadership, implemented participatory budgeting in 2023 for $10,000 of its budget as part of the Participatory Budgeting Project’s first PB for Orgs cohort. For Next Up, the decision to start PB was grounded in a desire to build transparency and trust with its base, helping supporters of the organization to feel more connected to and reflected in their work. The initiatives that were ultimately funded—a mutual aid fund and a Black, Indigenous, and Youth of Color music festival—highlight young people’s desire to be a part of organizations that can serve as a political home and provide a sense of community. Like the community-building events hosted by Forward Montana, the music festival has explicit goals of reaching new community members to support non-electoral, year-round organizing work. 

Looking ahead to local and national elections in 2024, Next Up is now considering advocating for PB at the local level, knowing that many of the young leaders they work with are already familiar with the process. Not only did PB in their organization allow young people to flex their democracy muscles outside of the traditional election season, but it also may grow into a pathway for advocacy in future elections.

Participatory Budgeting Resources