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Youth Who Learned about Voting in High School More Likely to Become Informed and Engaged Voters

CIRCLE surveys show that there's a relationship between being encouraged to vote and taught how to do so by teachers and a host of indicators of civic engagement later in life.

The 2020 presidential election is fast approaching, and the next few months will be critical for voter registration, education, and mobilization. Campaigns and grassroots organizers are revamping their outreach strategies to make the most of this final stretch, and it’s also an important time for K-12 schools to acknowledge and embrace their role in preparing young people for electoral participation. As educators are forced to rethink their instructional approach in light of COVID-19 disruptions, new research from a recent CIRCLE youth survey underscores the power of high school teachers encouraging students to vote and teaching them how to register to vote. Our survey offers a deeper understanding of the extent to which young people, ages 18-29, benefited from these experiences in high school and describes the impact of voter education and encouragement on youth attitudes and civic behavior.[1]

Our top findings reveal that:

  • Nearly two-thirds of respondents (64%) report having been encouraged to vote in high school, while half (50%) say they were taught how to register to vote
  • Who received civic encouragement or instruction in high school varies by race: two out of every three White students (67%) remember having being encouraged to vote in high school compared with one in two Black students (54%)
  • Youth who reported having been either encouraged to vote or taught how to register to vote in high school are more likely to vote and participate in other civic activities, more knowledgeable about voting processes, and more invested in and attentive to the 2020 election than other youth
  • Students who had not received encouragement to vote from teachers in high school were more than twice as likely to agree with the statement “Voting is a waste of time” as those who had been encouraged: 26% vs. 12%
  • Young people who learned about voting procedures in high school are more prepared for voting today: they were more likely than their peers to know if their states had online voter registration, and at least 10 percentage points more likely to respond that they had seen information on how to vote by mail, and to state that they would know where to go to find information on voting if their state’s election was shifted to all mail-in ballots

About the Survey: The first wave of the CIRCLE/Tisch College 2020 Youth Survey was fielded from May 20 to June 18, 2020. The survey covered adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who will be eligible to vote in the United Stated by the 2020 General Election. The sample was drawn from the Gallup Panel, a probability-based panel that is representative of the U.S. adult population, and from the Dynata Panel, a non-probability panel. A total of 2,232 eligible adults completed the survey, which includes oversamples of 18- to 21-year-olds (N=671), Asian American youth (N=306), Black youth (N=473), Latino youth (N=559) and young Republicans (N=373). Of the total completes, 1,019 were from the Gallup Panel and 1,238 were from the Dynata Panel. Unless stated otherwise, ‘youth’ refers to those ages 18- to 29-years old. The margin of error for the poll, taking into account the design effect from weighting, is +/- 4.1 percentage points. Margins of error for racial and ethnic subgroups range from +/-8.1 to 11.0 percentage points.

Access to Civic Instruction and Encouragement in High School Varies

Our survey indicates that half of young people in the U.S. have received instruction on how to register to vote (50%), and a majority have received encouragement to vote from teachers in high school (64%). While the survey offers limited insight into the quality or depth of these educational experiences, and does not imply causality, the data highlights a relationship between these experiences and outcomes that educators and allies across the country can build on to strengthen civics education in schools. Past CIRCLE research has found that young people who recall having received a better civics education are more likely to be civically engaged. These new results further illustrate the relationship between civic instruction and civic behavior.

Ensuring impact, however, begins with ensuring access. Our findings reveal inequities in who receives voter education and encouragement in high school, with disparities according to students’ race/ethnicity and region.

While almost two in three students overall (64%) report having been encouraged to vote in high school, this was true for just over half of Black students (54%). Additionally, 50% of 18- to 29-year-olds remember explicitly having received instruction in how to register to vote, and a slightly lower percentage of Black youth say they remember such instruction—though this difference is small. This data echoes past CIRCLE findings that White students and students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds were exposed to more promising practices in civics education than other students.

Lastly, by examining the responses of respondents of different ages (who would have been in school at different times) we tried to identify any trends in whether such voter instruction and/or encouragement has changed over time. While we found some evidence to suggest that colleges are doing better teaching and encouraging students to vote than they have in the past, we observed no clear aggregate changes over time nationally in whether voting is/is not taught or encouraged in high schools.

Voter Education and Encouragement in High School Associated With Stronger Civic Behavior and Attitudes

Our survey finds that there is a strong and consistent relationship between young people’s self-reported high school experiences with voter education and encouragement, and their interest/engagement in civic participation later in life.

While just over a quarter (26%) of survey respondents who did not remember being encouraged to vote in high school agreed with the phrase “Voting is a waste of time,” this number dropped by half (to 12%) among young people who had received encouragement to vote in high school. Similarly, one in four young people (25%) whose high school years lacked this form of civic encouragement agreed with the statement “I don’t know enough to vote;” this rate dropped ten percentage points (to 15%) among youth whose high school teachers had offered encouragement to vote.

Youth who remembered receiving voter instruction or encouragement in high school also reported higher rates of participation across a range of civic activities, some explicitly political and some not.

For example, youth who were encouraged or taught how to register to vote in high school were at least 10 percentage points more likely to have volunteered on or donated money to a political campaign. They were also at least 12 percentage points more likely to have served in a leadership role in a community organization, attended a march or demonstration, or advocated for policy change.  According to self-reported voter turnout from our survey, in both the 2016 and 2018 elections young people who had received both encouragement and instruction on voting in high school voted at a rate 7 percentage points higher than youth who received neither. 

Educators Can Play an Important Role in Expanding Equitable Voter Participation

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic adds a new layer of challenges and complexity to enabling and inspiring youth electoral participation this fall. But among all of the other educational priorities, helping youth navigate what they are seeing and hearing about civic life right now is crucial. Our survey suggests that youth who received instruction on registering to vote or encouragement to do so in high school are more invested in the 2020 election than youth who did not receive either, and that they will be better prepared to navigate changes to eligibility rules and election procedures in the months ahead.

Regardless of how long ago youth were in high school, those who received encouragement or instruction about voting from secondary school teachers are paying more attention to the 2020 election than their peers who did not have these experiences in school. That said, they’re not always more likely to believe that the election’s outcomes will significantly impact their communities. 
Students who had these experiences in high school are not only more attentive to what’s going on in the election; they’re more informed as well. And our analysis revealed that students who had been both encouraged to vote and taught how to register to vote in high school were the best prepared to navigate modern election procedures.

Survey respondents who had either been encouraged to vote or taught how to register in high school were 10+ percentage points more likely to have seen information about how to vote by mail than students who had neither experience, and this likelihood grew among young people who were both encouraged and taught to register to vote in high school.

The same was also true for young people’s self-reported ability to find information about casting a ballot if their state’s election shifts to all-mail: 76% of youth who had been taught about voter registration and encouraged to vote in high school said they’d know where to get such information, compared to just 49% of their peers who had had neither experience. Likewise, 60% of youth in our survey who had received both encouragement and instruction on voting in high school correctly identified whether or not their state offered online voter registration, compared to 42% of youth who had not been afforded either experience.

When young people were both encouraged to vote and taught how to register to vote in school, these experiences seem to have had a compounding effect. Students who were exposed to both types of ‘civic support’ were more likely to have tried to convince other young people to vote. About half (49%) of young people who had only reported being taught how to register to vote in high school had worked to convince their peers to register , and 54% of youth who had been encouraged to vote in high school had tried to register others. However, among youth who had been both taught and encouraged to vote, 59% reported they’ve worked to register peers.

This analysis demonstrates that high school teachers’ guidance about, and enthusiasm for, student voting is important insofar as it not only impacts young people’s knowledge about current voting processes; it also builds students’ sense of skill or confidence navigating election information and prepares them to stay abreast of future changes to election systems. That said, high quality implementation and instruction should be an important consideration. A more detailed account of young people’s experiences would go a long way towards understanding differences in the implementation and the effects of these strategies on various outcomes.

Making the Most of the Months Ahead

The data is clear: young people’s experiences being taught and encouraged to vote in high school matter, and young people and young voters have the potential to impact elections in many ways this fall

It’s also clear that, because of COVID-19, schooling this fall is not business as usual. As educators, administrators, and parents work collaboratively to shape what students’ educational experiences look like in the months ahead, they must include voting and elections as part of that conversation for the sake of youth engagement in 2020 and for years to come.

They may start by looking at their state’s policies and statutes and clarifying what opportunities their state offers for engaging students in learning about or participating in elections. Educators and others can turn also to the Teaching for Democracy Alliance (TFDA), a 17-member coalition coordinated by CIRCLE, for resources on how to embed civic learning within classrooms, schools, and districts. We recommend teachers and administrators adopt an approach that is both holistic—incorporating media literacy, classroom discussion, and Action Civics/experiential learning alongside voter registration and education—and explicit, providing young people direct access to accurate and detailed information on registration and voting procedures. We cannot take for granted that young people will access this information on their own just because it is available online. Past CIRCLE studies have revealed that young people often prefer utilizing these online tools with the guidance of trusted adults, such as teachers, so that they can ask questions and ensure they’re filling out forms correctly.

In a year when teachers and administrators are facing extraordinary challenges, the challenge of helping youth be ready to vote remains one of the most crucial. It holds the potential to impact young people’s participation in the November elections and in the civic life of their communities for years to come.

[1] This analysis is centered around two questions from the CIRCLE/Tisch College 2020 Youth Survey: “Did/have teachers in high school encouraged you to vote?” and “Did you learn about where and how to register to vote in high school?” We report on responses to these questions, and we use these questions as a filter for analyzing how participants answered other survey questions.

Authors: Sarah Andes, Abby Kiesa, Rey Junco, Alberto Medina