One to three weeks
A functional voting system is imperative to a healthy democracy, and the current voting process in the United States has room for improvement. By working together to come up with solutions for improving voter registration or turnout, students can gain a wider perspective on issues relevant to their communities and better understand the link between social change and collective action.
- Compile websites that are useful for finding data on voter registration and turnout, such as your state website, the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States Election Project, VOTE411.org, the Brennan Center for Justice, The Sentencing Project and FairVote. Note: If your class does not have reliable Internet access, prepare and provide printouts of relevant data sets for students to reference during the Get Set portion of the task.
- Prepare handouts for students. (There are three at the end of this lesson with charts for students to help organize their thinking and areas for them to summarize their findings.)
- Assess students’ prior knowledge of voting and voter registration. What do they already know, and what questions do they have?
- Show the 40-minute classroom documentary Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot. The film kit includes a viewer’s guide that goes into depth about how young people have advocated for voting rights.
- Reiterate that this lesson is about voting rights and the democratic act of voting, not about voting for a particular candidate. For suggestions on how to talk with your students about an election and advice on mediating charged political conversations, refer to these resources:
- Have students visit or read printouts from your state website, and the U.S. Census Bureau and the United States Election Project websites individually, in pairs or in small groups. Ask students to find and record data requested on the “Voter Turnout” handout.
- Have students visit the websites of or read printouts from VOTE411.org and the Brennan Center for Justice to further research voting rules and regulations. Ask students to record the information requested on the “Voter Restrictions or Voter Fraud” handout.
- Guide students in exploring or reading printouts from The Sentencing Project and FairVote to learn about the rules in their state regarding felon disenfranchisement. Ask them to complete the “Felon Disenfranchisement” handout.
- Pose these questions to your students to inspire their thinking about how to improve voter participation in their communities:
- What specific element of voter participation do you want to address?
- How can you influence participation?
- What outcomes are you seeking?
- What specific actions can you take to bring about these outcomes?
- Have students choose from this list of projects or create a new idea for how they will improve voter registration or voter turnout in their community:
- Publish a public service announcement on social media channels.
- Write letters to local elected officials asking for their attention to voter participation.
- Write and perform a skit designed to teach their community about the importance of voting.
- Create and distribute a flyer that supplies voting information to members of the community.
- Create a public mural reflecting the importance of voting rights.
- Create a community bulletin board with information on how to register to vote.
- Organize a neighborhood voter registration day to help community members register to vote.
- Organize a local march to raise awareness about local political issues, candidates and voter registration.
- Check to see if there is a local chapter of the League of Women Voters and investigate how to get involved.
Have students take time to reflect on their findings in writing (especially if they were working with partners or groups). Ask them: Today we face new barriers to voting, and some of the old barriers still exist. What would you be willing to march for?
English language learners
Learning about voting rights history and struggles is an important lesson for all, but it can be especially complex for students who are new to the country. Consider adding to this lesson a discussion of citizenship and voting rights for immigrants. You might also discuss the issue of campaign materials and ballots being available in different languages.
Connection to anti-bias education
Critically analyzing voting rights and access in the United States raises students’ awareness of inequity. By summarizing voter turnout by subgroups, students see discrepancies and are prompted to draw thoughtful conclusions about how to change our voting system. The projects will empower students to take action on important social justice issues.