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What’s Motivating Teens to Vote?

Education Week survey, national polls offer insights into young voters

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In a new national survey, concern about the February shootings at a high school in Parkland, Fla., was the top reason cited by eligible teen voters as motivating them to cast a ballot. And students who said they had taken civics classes were also more likely to say they planned to exercise their right to vote in the midterm elections.

Education Week polled 1,300 potential first-time voters — ages 18 and 19 — about their plans to vote, including sources of information that might influence their decisions at the ballot box, whether they had received civics education in school, and the societal issues that most concerned them. Nearly half of survey respondents are full-time or part-time college students, while 17 percent are still in high school.

Among the key findings:

  • Six out of 10 teenagers eligible to vote for the first time this year said they planned to exercise that right in next week’s midterm elections.
  • Nearly half of all respondents said the Parkland school shootings had raised their level of political engagement.
  • Of respondents who said they planned to vote, 41 percent described themselves as liberal, 31 percent as moderate, and 29 percent as conservative.

One of the Ed Week poll respondents, Egzona Rexhepi, 18, a Boise State University student, said her personal politics “changed dramatically” in the aftermath of the Parkland shootings.

“Instead of following the efforts of seemingly progressive organizations, I learned to lead instead,” she told Idaho Education News. “Now, I focus all of my political energy on ensuring my generation specifically is heard, because our perspective is ignored far too often.”

The poll also showed some disconcerting findings. For example, 49 percent of the teens surveyed said they were unable to name a single candidate on the midterm ballot. That could reflect disengagement but it also raises questions about the effectiveness of candidates’ outreach and messaging to this critical voting bloc. The top three sources of information youths said they are using to decide how to vote are family (30 percent), TV news (38 percent) and YouTube (33 percent).

The survey was released two weeks before the midterm elections. Even as elections for Congress are getting tremendous attention, a lot is at stake — especially for education policy and funding — in state and local races this year, including 36 states where the governor is on the ballot. (For more on that, check out this recent EWA blog post.)

Lauren Camera of U.S. News & World Report offers a thorough overview of the Ed Week survey here, and put it in context with recent remarks by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos:

[DeVos said] not enough students are taking civics classes and that’s having a negative impact on their ability to engage with one another and the world around them. Indeed, the survey found that less than half of students took a stand-alone civics class in high school. Those who’ve never taken civics in school are less likely to plan to vote.

To be sure, even though 63 percent of the teen participants said they intended to vote, it’s likely that a smaller percentage will actually cast ballots in the general election, said Holly Yettick, the director of the Education Week Research Center, which commissioned the poll. Indeed, 37 percent of the teens polled said they had “no interest in voting at all.”

That’s not inconsistent with other recent data on the youth vote. A new survey commissioned by The Atlantic found just 35 percent of Americans ages 18-29 said they were “certain” to vote in the midterms.

Six million potential youth voters were “underutilized” in the 2016 election, meaning they registered but didn’t actually vote, according to the Center on Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Boston’s Tufts University. More than twice as many registered youth voters stayed home for the 2014 midterms, according to CIRCLE. (Voter turnout is typically lower across all age groups during midterm elections.)

New York magazine spoke with 12 young people who said they probably won’t vote in the midterms, offering reasons ranging from disillusionment with the nation’s political system to being unable to easily navigate their state’s rules for registering and voting.

Among the teens surveyed by Education Week who said they intend to vote, the most popular reasons were:

  • “It’s good for the country when people vote” (41 percent).
  • “It’s my civic duty” (31 percent).
  • “I want to cast a vote in favor of/against the direction of the Trump administration” (30 percent).

Among the characteristics shared by teens who were more likely to say they planned to vote in the midterms:

*Living in suburban communities;

*Describing themselves as liberal;

*Are current or former private school students;

*Are involved in civic-related activities.

Writing for The Atlantic, Alia Wong looked at how civics education contributes to building a new generation not just of voters but also activists:

Starting in the 1960s, robust civics instruction, which usually took place through three standard high-school courses, started to atrophy. It’s likely not a coincidence, then, given evidence suggesting a link between civics education and voter participation, that the 1960s coincided with a slump in the rate of young adults who cast ballots.

The activist angle is particularly interesting once young voters move from high school to college. As Jeremy Bauer-Wolf reported for Inside Higher Ed, new research suggests that postsecondary students are more likely to seek out organizations that reflect their positions on key issues, like the environment, rather than a particular political party. That means the prime time to build civic engagement on campus is outside of traditional election cycles, the researchers concluded.

And there’s an argument to be made for focusing more on civics in elementary school, as well. Introducing students to the concepts of civics education while they’re still early learners can pay big dividends later on, according to this takeout by The Hechinger Report: “Without social studies, we lose the civic mission of public schools,” said Stephanie Serriere, a former early-grade teacher who is now an associate professor of social studies education at Indiana University-Purdue University Columbus. “Ultimately, we can’t prepare children for living in a rich, diverse democracy if we don’t expose them to the controversial topics inherent in our democracy.”

For more on these issues, check out our Topics Page on Education and the 2018 Elections for a roundup of the latest coverage, recent reports, and writeups from EWA seminar sessions. EWA provided partial support for the Education Week poll through an EWA Reporting Fellowship.