Adding a civics lesson to Nov. 4 election events

Adding a civics lesson to Nov. 4 election events

(Calif.) With a general election on the horizon, top voter and education officials are urging public school administrators to use the event as a teachable civics moment for their students – a subject lawmakers both here and across the country want to see brought back to life in K-12 curriculum.

One opportunity, according to a letter sent earlier this month to school leaders by state schools chief Tom Torlakson and Secretary of State Debra Bowen, is for them to remember their obligation, under state law, to provide school sites for use as election polling places. The letter also urged administrators to proactively turn over to local elections officials the names of students interested in serving as poll workers for the Nov. 4 election.

The reminder comes on the heels of a new law aimed at fostering student-led voter registration events and just prior to a statewide mock student election, held every two years.

“The importance of participating in events such as the mock election or leadership programs is that students can see something carried from an idea that someone might propose through the process, where there’s some research done, committees formed, issues agendized and eventually a decision made,” said principal John Gutierrez, whose Bolsa Knowles Middle School in Salinas is one of several hundred in the state taking part in the Oct. 28 My Vote Student Mock Election. “In this regard, students can see how government, even at this level, works.”

California is among a growing number of states taking steps to encourage more civic education in K-12 classrooms, all with the hope of increasing student knowledge and spurring greater voter turnout among youth.

Gov. Jerry Brown in July signed legislation that updates existing law by expanding the list of individuals allowed to register students to vote on high school campuses – from only deputy registrars of voters to people authorized by the county elections official.

The statute also reiterates that the last two full weeks in the months of April and September – now known as “high school voter weeks” – be designated as “high school voter education weeks,” and it authorizes each school administrator to name one or more students as voter outreach coordinators to encourage student registration during that time.

Other states, as well as counties, cities and even individual school boards have adopted similar laws or policies to increase youth participation through high school voter registration programs. California also made this process more accessible by allowing online voter registration beginning in 2012, and Bowen’s office launched a campaign to have districts and schools include on their websites a special button linking to the registration page.

While progress is apparent, success in actively involving students in voter registration and turnout often requires a dedicated individual or team at a district or school.

According to a 2010 study by Project Vote on high school voter registration programs, the most common program being carried out across the country is simply having voter registration applications available in a main office for students to pick up.

Principal Gutierrez signed his school up to participate in the mock election as one way to engage his middle school students in their eighth grade U.S. History course. The school also offers a Leadership Class in which students are responsible for planning and executing events, such as the mock election but also non-political activities. Gutierrez leads the class on what he calls “Business Wednesdays” when students discuss issues such as financing and logistics and make decisions about proceeding.

For schools that sign up to participate in the mock election, the state provides curriculum and supplies – such as ballots, posters, “I Voted” stickers, reporting forms and copies of the Official Voter Information Guide – so that students can learn about real candidates and issues that will be on the California ballot, then vote on mock election ballots the week before the real election.

“When students are encouraged to gather and share information on the candidates and ballot measures, and debate the pros and cons, they learn how to become informed voters, and look forward to making their voices heard on Student Mock Election Day,” reads an email Gutierrez received from My Vote California after signing up to participate in the event.