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Help Students Register to Vote, Education Department Urges Schools

Schools can take a more central role in introducing students to a core civic duty: voting.

That’s the gist of a new, nonpartisan guide released this week by the U.S. Department of Education, which lists practical steps schools can take to encourage students to participate in elections and help them register to vote before they graduate.

The voter participation toolkit outlines nonpartisan strategies to help students in K-12 school districts, colleges, and universities.

“Voting is fundamental to our democracy, and our schools and colleges play an important role in helping our students become active participants in our democratic society,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

The tool kit, released Monday, resulted from an executive order on promoting access to voting signed by President Joe Biden in March 2021. That order called on federal agencies, including the Education Department, to “consider ways to expand citizens’ opportunities to register to vote and to obtain information about, and participate in, the electoral process.”

The work comes as youth civics organizations stress voter registration and preregistration for high school students in the run-up to the 2024 presidential election.

“If you’ve got a list of democracy emergencies, please add high school voter registration to that list,” Laura Brill, director of the Civics Center, said in a webinar Tuesday. The nonpartisan organization provides resources for schools to encourage student registration through efforts like a spring “Cap, Gown, and Ballot” campaign.

About 50 percent of U.S. teens live in states that allow preregistration at age 16, according to a Civics Center analysis. Twenty percent live in states that allow preregistration at age 17, the organization estimates, and a majority of the remaining students will reach voting age before they graduate from high school.

More than half of states allow or require high schools to provide voter registration forms or do outreach to students, but past research has found many districts in those states fail to do so.

“When young people know the stakes and they are registered, they turn out at very high rates,” Brill said.

Among the federal tool kit’s recommendations for K-12 schools:

  • Administrators should review how their state’s plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act stresses civics education and participation.
  • District administrators should research if their state law allows preregistration and, if so, coordinate efforts to encourage students to do so.
  • High school principals should designate a staff point person to distribute voter registration materials and provide updates about deadlines.
  • Schools should empower students to plan and conduct voter registration drives for their peers and for their broader community.

The new resource also lists examples of states’ and districts’ efforts.

For example, the Santa Clara, Calif., district provides students with materials that outline exercises to help them identify the issues they prioritize in voting and help them consider how they will build a habit of voting in the future.

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