PD CAFÉ

How Much Do You Know About Voting in the United States?

Election season is right around the corner. Take a moment to brush up on some key voting facts, and share them with your students and colleagues!

Pop Quiz

  1. True or False? The U.S. Constitution guarantees every American citizen the right to vote.
  2. What percentage of Americans report that they have never been asked to register to vote?
    A. 30 percent B. 45 percent C. 60 percent
  3. In Ohio’s May 2018 primary elections, how many races were tied or determined by one vote?
    A. 4 B. 23 C. 59
  4. True or False? A U.S. resident is more likely to be struck by lightning than to commit voter ID fraud.

 

ANSWER KEY

  1. False. States are in charge of voting laws, and while constitutional amendments tell states what they can’t do (deny the vote based on race, gender or age, for example), nothing in the Constitution tells the states what they must do (make sure all citizens can vote).
  2. C. According to “Why Are Millions of Citizens Not Registered to Vote?” a brief by the Pew Charitable Trusts, “more than 60 percent of adult citizens have never been asked to register to vote, and the rate was nearly identical among individuals who are and are not registered.”
  3. C. The Ohio secretary of state reports that in 59 races and one local issue, elections were either tied or decided by one vote.
  4. True. In the Brennan Center for Justice’s report The Truth About Voter Fraud, Justin Levitt writes, “It is more likely that an individual will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”

Illustration featuring various situations dealing with voting and civic engagement.

Vocabulary

The Voting Rights Act of 1965

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 prohibited literacy tests as a barrier to voting; empowered the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and federal courts to monitor problem jurisdictions; and, most importantly, required jurisdictions with a history of discrimination to receive federal approval before they could make any changes in voting procedures or requirements. These provisions stood—and were strengthened by Congress—until 2013, when the Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that it was no longer necessary to require DOJ approval for changes to voting procedures in these areas.

 

Disenfranchisement

Disenfranchisement is the act of depriving someone of the right to vote.

 

Gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is the practice of drawing districts with the goal of producing a particular election result. Gerrymandered districts divide communities to weaken their voting power and to protect the power of one political party. 

Speech bubbles filled with United States flag graphics.

How Do You Talk About Voting With Your Students?

Step 1

There are many reasons that people don’t register or vote, and understanding how your experience compares to that of others is insightful on this front. Read through the “voting ease checklist” below; the more statements that apply to you, the easier it is for you to register and vote.

  • I have been asked to register to vote.
  • My state has automatic voter registration.
  • My state has online voter registration.
  • My state doesn’t require excessive documentation to register to vote.
  • It was easy for my grandparents to vote in my state.
  • As a child, I accompanied my parent to vote.
  • I have reliable transportation to my polling place.
  • I’ve never been told I wasn’t on the voting rolls when I’ve gone to vote.
  • My state has same-day voter registration.
  • I have never had to get an ID issued specifically for the purpose of voting.
  • My state offers opportunities to vote early.
  • My state offers opportunities for absentee voting or voting by mail.
  • I voted in the first election in which I was eligible.
  • I can take time off work to vote.
  • I’m not disqualified from voting because of my citizenship status.
  • I’m not disqualified from voting because I was convicted of a crime.

 

Step 2

Talk with students about voter registration and turnout. Explain that a majority of Americans probably won’t vote in November. Share some key statistics: Around 40 percent of citizens don’t vote in presidential elections. In midterm years, like 2018, that number climbs closer to 60 percent. One in 5 Americans isn’t registered to vote.

Ask students to consider why people might choose not to register or vote. Share the voting ease checklist with them. (If you’re comfortable, you can share your answers, too.) Ask students what they’d add to the checklist: What are some other reasons people might not register or vote?

To better understand how state laws can affect voter registration and turnout, look with students at Rock the Vote’s “Voting Rights in …” tool, which identifies each state as a “blocker,” “slacker” or “leader” in voting rights based on 11 policy categories.

 

Step 3

Remind students of the importance of voter registration. In the last five presidential elections, the difference between the two main candidates was 2 percent in 2016, 4 percent in 2012, 7 percent in 2008, 2.5 percent in 2004 and 0.5 percent in 2000. If even half of unregistered Americans had registered and voted, they could have swayed the presidency for the last 20 years.

Work as a class to come up with counter-arguments to the three or four most popular reasons why people might choose not to register or vote. (The “Five Myths About Voting” poster available in this issue might offer some useful evidence for student arguments.)

Ask students to predict how the number of unregistered voters and nonvoters in your community compares to the rest of the country. Do they think your community will meet, exceed or fall below national averages? Return to the checklist and to student comments and discuss why they chose their answers.

 

Step 4

Assign students to conduct an informal poll. Outside of class, each student should poll five people they see regularly who are over the age of 18, asking the following questions:

  • Are you registered to vote?
  • Do you plan to vote?
  • Why or why not?
  • Why do you think people don’t vote?

 

Step 5

Tally the results of the student survey. Have students compare their findings to national averages (80 percent would answer “yes” to question 1, 40 percent to question 2) and to your own class hypotheses about why people do or don’t register and vote.

Ask students to write letters to those people who aren’t registered or aren’t planning to vote. In their letters, they can explain both why people would be reluctant to vote and why voting is important. Have them return to the adults they surveyed and give those adults a letter and a voter registration form.

Visit our Voting and Voices Page!

TT has gathered our best election resources on our Voting and Voices webpage. Visit the page for election-year classroom and professional development resources, information on our Voting and Democracy Grants, and materials for helping students lead voter registration drives!