Teaching the 2016 Election: Youth Participation in Elections, Part I

by Shawn Healy, PhD, Civic Learning Scholar

Over the past two months, we’ve tried to set the table for teaching the 2016 Election, beginning with the high-profile presidential contest. We kicked off with the party conventions, discussed the third party alternatives, and delved into the vice presidential selection process. Then, we parsed polling data, analyzed media coverage of the election process, shined a spotlight on money in politics, and untangled the Electoral College.

We then worked our way down the ballot, beginning with the fierce battle for party control of the U.S. Senate and a more politically insulated House of Representatives. Specific to Illinois, we did a post mortem on the failed effort to reform legislative redistricting, featured the special election for Comptroller, and weighed the prospect of ending the Springfield Stalemate through General Assembly races. On Monday, and throughout the series, we have provided educators with tools to teach the content, in this case the first of three presidential debates.

In the remaining seven weeks of the campaign, we’ll continued to tackle timely topics, but first want to frame the 2016 Election from the perspective of youth participation over the course of three consecutive posts.

The late Illinois Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka claimed that young people “…don’t vote because very often they’re lazy, and they’re too busy playing with their little machines… They’re just too in tune with texting and not in tune with what’s going on around them.”

We plan to unpack and challenge these claims because they are misconceptions that lie at the heart of a problem we are desperately trying to unpack as civic educators: deep concerns about youth disengagement from the political process and elections in particular.

In a survey on likely non-voters ages 18-29 leading up to the 2012 Election, 43% said it didn’t matter who won because Washington is broken. More than three-in-ten (31%) felt that none of the candidates represented their views, and a quarter (25%) saw little difference between the two parties.

While one may be reluctant to call themselves lazy, this response didn’t rise to the fore. In fact, specific to Illinois, we have a trust issue between citizens and our government at every level, but it’s particularly distorted at the state level among Millennials. Recall that in order to participate in our democracy we must believe that we can make a difference and that government and institutions will be responsive to us.

The good news is that exposure to proven civic learning practices like those embedded in Illinois’ new course requirement can build young peoples’ confidence in their ability to affect positive change. This is indeed the perennial task at hand.

Future posts will examine youth voting in recent elections and its potential impact in 2016 through an Illinois-centric lens, along with the intersection of young people “playing with their little machines” and political life.

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