By Elizabeth Sidler, Senior Program Associate, GC Oklahoma
Registering 290 high school students to vote? Amazing!
But what does 290 votes get you? Not a President—unless all those votes are members of the electoral college. Likely not a Senator. Or Governor. But a School Board member, City ordinance, City Councilor, Mayor, District Judge, State Representative? You bet.
In 2018-2019 alone, well over 500 elections in Oklahoma were decided by fewer than 290 votes. Some were decided by only one.*
In September, 2019 Generation Citizen Oklahoma and the League of Women Voters of Oklahoma County—founding organizations of the Oklahoma City Civic Learning Coalition—registered 290 high school students from Oklahoma City Public Schools to vote.
“I think that learning how to get involved with government at a local level helps students to understand how they can make an impact,” said Hannah Bigbee, a Sophomore at the University of Oklahoma and the Chair of Generation Citizen’s Student Leadership Board. “Focusing on national politics makes it feel impossible to get politically involved because there are so many people represented that everyone feels that their voice isn’t big enough.”
There are many reasons young people don’t vote, but a common one is the perception that their vote doesn’t actually matter. Unlike the vastness of presidential elections, local elections are almost always a direct form of democracy, draw on a smaller pool of voters, and have smaller margins of victory. The closer to home an election, the more each vote matters.
And getting young people registered to vote may be one of the biggest hurdles to getting them to cast their ballot. We know young people are neither overwhelmingly apathetic nor simply pessimistic. They are dissuaded from participating because they have been let down by the adults in their communities who should be ensuring that they are prepared for civic participation.
According to research conducted by CIRCLE at Tufts University, robust K-12 civics education is essential to raising voting rates. Based on a study of voting behavior, young people are 40% more likely to vote when they turn 18 if they’ve been taught about elections and voting in a meaningful way.
At its best, civics education is woven into core Social Studies classes and gives every student access to the knowledge and skills they need to be active, effective members of their community. Action Civics, a key policy priority for Oklahoma’s Civic Learning Coalition, goes a step further by giving them the chance to use that knowledge and skill as they work with local government to take action on pressing community issues.
Bigbee says that “when you teach civics that is aimed at getting involved within a community, students are able to learn how to get in touch with representatives and have their voices heard. Students are more likely to find meaningful political engagements at a local level and from those interactions, they gain valuable civic skills and knowledge that empower them to get involved at a state or national level.”
Young people in Oklahoma are ready to take their voting rights seriously. Will we, the taxpayers who fund their schools and whose futures are bound up with theirs, take our responsibility seriously and ensure that Oklahoma schools are preparing students with high quality Action Civics? I have faith that we will.
* Election to fill an unexpired term for a Board of Trustees seat in the Town of Oaks, population 288 as of the 2010 census. Data extracted and compiled from www.elections.ok.gov.
Elizabeth Sidler is the Senior Program Associate for Generation Citizen Oklahoma. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.