Igniting the passion of a new generation of voters

Civics education is part of the answer

THE 2022 MIDTERM elections saw the second-highest youth turnout for an election in more than 30 years, with 27 percent of citizens aged 18-29 casting a ballot. That figure is second only to the 2018 midterms, where youth turnout reached 31 percent.

The rise in youth turnout upended the long-held narrative that young people don’t vote because they are either apathetic or feel powerless. Indeed, young people are becoming more empowered to engage. They are facing endless crises – economic pressures, climate change, gun violence, student loan debt, and more. They perceive imminent threats to their freedoms or to democracy itself, and as a result, they are showing up to do something about it. The Dobbs decision, in particular, which ruled that abortion was not a federal constitutional right, led to a surge in new voter registration – especially among young women. When they have a stake in the outcome, young people turn out to vote.

While we can only hope this energy endures in less politically fraught times, it’s incumbent upon all of us to make sure future generations are able to take the reins, vote in every election, and participate in democracy. To do this, we have to start engaging and empowering our young people much earlier in their lives. Our youth don’t magically become politically active and eager to vote the moment they turn 18; their civic virtue must be nurtured over time.

Our public schools are uniquely positioned to reach our young people. Indeed, it is their responsibility to do so – developing students not only academically, socially, and emotionally, but civically as well. Importantly, we know that schools can – and do – meaningfully impact voter engagement. There is a direct correlation between civic education and voter participation. But it’s not just about intellectual engagement. A recent study of Boston schools suggests that when schools instill non-cognitive skills, such as executive function and conscientiousness, alongside academic skills, students are more likely to become voters.

In 2018, the Commonwealth passed a law to strengthen civics education across the state. While it will take some time to experience its full benefits, the law is a foundational first step. But we must reach beyond the demands of the law and commit to creating ways within our schools to build our scholars’ confidence in their ideas, to spark their curiosity in elections and voting, and instill within them an understanding that their vote is their voice.

To be clear, this encouragement doesn’t mean trying to indoctrinate a certain ideology. It’s quite the opposite. As we work to empower students to use their voices, we are also teaching them critical thinking skills so they will figure out how to make their own choices. As they develop their own personal value system, they will be empowered to recognize whether a certain candidate reflects them.

It is our duty not to encourage students how to vote but simply to vote and to register to vote the moment they are eligible. Voter pre-registration starts at age 16 when they are still in high school and can be done simultaneously with getting their driver’s licenses or permits. Then, when they turn 18, they are already on the voting rolls and prepared to cast their first ballot.

I regularly visit students at schools, and recently I visited Roxbury Prep Charter School, the school I attended from grades 6-8. I asked students what issues they see and experience in their communities. They spoke about affordable housing, incarceration, equitable allocation of funding, and more. They were clear-eyed and observant; they see the problems in the world around them, and they want to right them.

I encouraged the students to recognize the tremendous power of their voice and their vote in bringing about the change they imagine – and maybe even running for office themselves. We took action, just in time for the November election, registering every single eligible student to vote. The energy in the room was palpable, and the smiles on students’ faces were bright as they hit submit on their voter registration forms, feeling the power of their voice take on new potency in that moment.

I know this feeling because Roxbury Prep and Prospect Hill Academy Charter School – where I attended high school – ignited a spirit of civic engagement within me. Both schools encouraged awareness of important issues and provided opportunities to become involved. Without that exposure, I probably wouldn’t have run for public office.

Finally, it is important to note that civics education cannot be impactful without access. A recent study reveals that inequities in civic education persist, with disparities according to students’ race, ethnicity, and region. This cannot endure. Today, 48 percent of Gen Zers are people of color. It’s the most diverse generation in American history, and the next generation will be even more so. As their numbers continue to grow, young people will permanently transform our political systems. It’s crucial we engage and empower our youth today, so they can be the leaders of tomorrow who can preserve our legacy.

Chyna Tyler represents the 7th Suffolk District in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, which includes the Boston neighborhoods of Roxbury, Dorchester, Fenway, South End and Mission Hill. She is chair of the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus.