Program encourages students to get involved, vote
Story, graphics and video by Kayla Stauffer, NewsNetNebraska
Despite a recent boost in voter turnout among youth, 18 to 29-year-olds remain the most underrepresented age group in the national electorate, according to the United States Census Bureau. It’s a trend that a local non-profit organization, Nebraskans for Civic Reform, is trying to change.
Unlike other organizations seeking to close the voting gap, Nebraskans for Civic Reform isn’t focusing on college students. It’s targeting a younger audience – one that still attends gym class and isn’t allowed to leave during lunch: high school freshmen.
The idea, said Adam Morfeld, founder and executive director of Nebraskans for Civic Reform, is that if people are involved in their community at an early age, they’ll be more likely to stay involved as adults and vote.
Nebraskans for Civic Reform and Lincoln Public Schools
This year the non-profit organization is testing that theory by teaming up with Lincoln Public Schools. Together they tweaked the ninth grade curriculum to highlight the importance of civic engagement, and students are now taking part in food drives, participating in bullying awareness campaigns and writing letters to soldiers overseas.
“We believe that by making students comfortable with the process and their elected and community leaders,” Morfeld said, “we will instill a sense of trust and empowerment in our community and government, which will hopefully also lead to active participation in the electoral process.”
The service-learning projects that the students are involved in this year are intended to promote more than just feel-good experiences and resume-building volunteer hours, said Dillon Jones, the AmeriCorps Director of Civic Engagement Programs at Nebraskans for Civic Reform. They’re in place to remind students of their importance within society – to show them how an individual can affect the whole.
It’s a concept often forgotten in an election year.
According to a National Exit Poll by Edison Research, only 49.3 percent of Americans under the age of 30 who were eligible to vote actually cast a ballot this year.
“Civic engagement is essential for success of a democratic society,” said Randy Ernst, the Social Studies Curriculum Specialist for LPS. “And at the end of the day, social studies classes are geared to fostering good citizens and good citizenship. Can you think of a more important educational goal?”
Controversy over program’s effectiveness
But will participating in food drives and cleaning up public parks really inspire students to be engaged citizens and vote as adults?
They might, said Kevin Smith, a political science professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, but they might not.
“Community engagement tends to be non-conflictual,” he said. “Politics, on the other hand, is all about conflict and disagreement.”
“Someone might be willing to give a lot of their time volunteering at a soup kitchen,” Smith said, “but that doesn’t mean it will make them more likely to engage in the rough and tumble of politics where their views and participation is as likely to be criticized as it is to be praised.”
Subjecting students to criticism and pushing them outside of their comfort zones is important, Morfeld said, but it’s not everything.
Students need to learn how to form their own opinions, research the issues for themselves and remain respectful towards one another throughout the process.
“Robust and respectful debates about topics both controversial and non-controversial in our schools is critical to preparing students for the political world we live in,” he said.
Smith agrees that the concepts are important to be taught, but said he doesn’t foresee the youth vote getting as high as the rest of the country.
“Generally speaking, young people have less of a stake in the system,” Smith said. “They don’t have kids in school…they’re not likely to be worried about property taxes or mortgages.”
They are less likely to vote because politics are less likely to have a direct impact on their lives, he said.
Lincoln Southwest ninth grader Javen Kinnan admitted that despite her class’s involvement in service-learning projects, she still has little interest in politics.
“I’m not too big into voting,” she said. “I mean honestly I could care less. It’s not my thing yet. I’ll wait for it to become my thing.”
Education’s effect on voting trends
In addition to age, data also reveals a direct correlation between educational level and voting trends.
According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, 62 percent of college-educated young people voted in the 2008 presidential election, whereas only 36 percent of young voters without college experience voted.
High school freshmen lack the qualities of a typical American voter. They are young and without college experience. Yet Nebraskans for Civic Reform is reaching out to them to increase voter turnout among 18 to 29-year-olds. The organization is looking to them to fix the problem and not just the symptoms.
Ninth graders may not be able to drive yet, said Lisa Bales, a freshmen social studies teacher at Lincoln Southwest, but they can still make a difference.