2016 Elections at University of Texas
Mini-Lesson
Current Event

A New Generation of Young Voters Emerges

Explore why young people tend to vote at lower rates and how they can get more involved in elections. 

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At a Glance

Mini-Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • Civics & Citizenship
  • Social Studies

Grade

6–12
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement

Overview

About This Mini-Lesson

The 2020 presidential election saw an 11% increase in youth voting from the 2016 election (from 39% to 50%), but young people still vote at lower rates than older generations. Use the activities in this mini-lesson to explore why youth political participation matters, trends around youth voting, and ways in which young people can engage with elections. 

What follows are teacher-facing instructions for the activities. Find student-facing instructions in the Google Slides for this mini-lesson.

This mini-lesson is designed to be adaptable. You can use the activities in sequence or choose a selection best suited to your classroom. It includes:

  • 3 activities
  • Student-facing slides
  • Recommended articles for exploring this topic

Until 1971, Americans as young as 18 years old could be drafted into the military and sent to fight in the increasingly controversial war in Vietnam, but they could not vote. That year, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment was ratified, addressing the gap between draft eligibility and the right to vote by lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. But young people have voted at lower rates than older generations ever since. 

Many young people do not receive robust civic education that helps them understand why their participation matters, and political campaigns often do not reach out to youth, which can further feelings of alienation from the process. Young people are also affected by structural barriers to voting, including challenges around absentee voting, difficulty reaching polling places, and lack of time off from work or school to vote. 1

Despite these barriers, both the 2018 and 2020 elections saw a surge in youth participation. An estimated 50% of 18-29 year-olds voted in the 2020 elections, up from 39% in 2016. No one factor is responsible for this jump, but it is likely that policies that many states implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic to make absentee voting and registration easier removed some of the obstacles to youth voting. 2

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this mini-lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process. 

For a variety of reasons, some students may not believe that voting or elections result in meaningful change and may struggle to engage with a discussion on youth voting. We believe that you can respect their opinions, ask them about other ways to make change, and also challenge them to consider why some young people choose to vote. If this sentiment comes up with your students, you may wish to explain that voting is one tool among many to bring about change in society. Consider asking them:

  • What are other ways besides voting that you, as a young person, can bring about change in society?
  • Why might other young people choose to vote or get involved in elections?

You can also use our unit 10 Questions for Young Changemakers to help students explore other ways in which young people have brought about change.

One of the suggestions in Activity 3 for how youth can get involved in elections beyond voting is creating or sharing content online. If you have not already done so, we suggest that you talk to your students about responsible use of social media before discussing this recommendation. Our mini-lesson What Does It Mean to Live with Social Media? can help students reflect on the impact social media has on their lives.

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Activities

Activities

Ask your students to respond to one or both the following prompts in their journals:

  • What are some issues in your community or country that you, or other young people, care about? 
  • In your opinion, are there differences between the issues young people care about and the issues people in older generations care about? If so, what are those differences, and why do they exist?

Once students have finished writing, invite them to share aspects of their responses in small groups. Then discuss the following question as a class:

Do you think it matters whether young people vote or participate in politics in other ways? Why or why not?

Project the CIRCLE page Dispelling Myths about Youth Voting. Look at the first two charts under the heading “Myth: Youth Voting Has Been Declining for Decades,” which show youth voting rates in midterm and presidential elections. Ask your students:

  • How has youth voting changed over time? 
  • What questions, if any, does this information raise for you?
  • What ideas do you have for why youth voting increased in the 2018 and 2020 elections?

In 2018, CIRCLE examined why some young people registered but did not end up voting. Share the following list of reasons, from the resource Why Youth Don’t Vote: Differences by Race and Education, with your students:

  • Didn't like the candidates/issues
  • Too busy/had a conflict on Election Day
  • Was out of town
  • Problems with voter ID
  • Problems with voter registration
  • No transportation to polling place
  • Line at polling place was too long
  • Inconvenient hours/location of polling place

Then, ask your students:

  • Do you know anyone who has experienced one or more of these barriers? What happened and how did they respond?
  • What other barriers would you include on this list?
  • What recommendations might you provide to remedy these barriers?
  • The most common reason young people cited in this survey for not voting was that they didn’t like the candidates or didn’t identify with the issues being debated. What more could candidates do to inspire young people?
  • Do you think people should vote even when the candidates do not inspire them? Why or why not?

There are many ways young people can get involved in elections besides voting. Ask your students to read through the following suggestions from the report CIRCLE Growing Voters: Building Institutions and Community Ecosystems for Equitable Election Participation:

Support Your Friends and Family 

  • Encourage friends and family to participate in the election and help them make a plan to do so 
  • Help them find reliable information about the voting process, the candidates, and the issues 
  • Organize or support conversations at school about elections and voting 

Uplift Stories & Issues You Care About 

  • Share your views, concerns, and experiences 
  • Connect with a local media outlet and find or suggest opportunities to contribute to their election coverage 
  • Create and share media online about the people and issues in your community 

Be Part of the Process 

  • Volunteer on a local, state, or national political campaign 
  • Work with a local organization that is registering others to vote 
  • Find out if you can work at the polls on Election Day—many states allow 16- and 17-year-olds to do it! 1

Then, ask your students to use the Think, Pair, Share strategy to reflect on the following questions:

  • What difference do you think these suggestions might make?
  • Which of these ideas, if any, could you see yourself doing and why? If you can’t see yourself doing any of these ideas, why not?

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Materials and Downloads

Resources from Other Organizations

These are the resources from external sources that we recommend using with students throughout the activities in this mini-lesson.

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