An Election Connection

Involve students in the election for the benefit of themselves and the country

When researchers for the Brookings Institution asked 4,000 high school students about politics last year, a majority said they had no faith in the political system, and less than 10 percent said they’d ever consider running for office. Their comments were telling:

  • “Politicians are just liars.”
  • “Most politicians are hypocrites.”
  • “People in politics are two-faced.”

Advisers for student leaders find each day things aren’t that bleak, but they also know it’s important to continually promote understanding of campaigns and involvement in elections—especially with students who are leaders. Generally, they find those students are excited to be involved, will engage others, and just may be the politicians who don’t fit these descriptions.

“I have seen countless students become interested in an election when given the opportunity,” says Karissa Niehoff, a former teacher and adviser and now executive director of the Connecticut Association of Schools, which oversees student councils, National Honor Society (NHS) chapters, and other student leadership programs statewide. “They’ve done special projects around election and civic topics, or even pursued pathways leading to roles as elected officials. At the very least, they have broadened their understanding of issues and have learned that civic engagement is critically important.”

Why Participate?

Louise Dubé, executive director of iCivics—a venture begun by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to raise young people’s awareness of elections and civic responsibility—says it’s good for the student and essential for the country.

“Is there another choice, really?” she says, noting that despite the cynicism that these students may feel, their attitudes can change. “I think kids today are trying to find themselves and searching for a purpose. What better purpose than to be part of our democracy?”

Abby Kiesa, youth coordinator for CIRCLE (the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)—another organization committed to civic engagement and offering a host of research on youth civics—agrees that involvement in elections is important for a variety of reasons.

Blindly standing behind a candidate makes you a Democrat or Republican. Standing up for your beliefs makes you a leader.

“Our research shows that what happens before 18 is critical to lifelong engagement. When youth are engaged early, they are more likely to be engaged when they are older.” She notes that research also shows that once people vote, they are more likely to be involved in other civic activity. Also, young voters often influence their parents to vote.

“This process is at the core of America’s foundation, and it’s a way for people to have their voices and opinions heard,” says Dylan Johnson, president of the Nevada Association of Student Councils and a senior at Southeast Career Technical Academy in Las Vegas. “Also, by getting involved now, even if you aren’t old enough to actually vote, you’re educating yourself about the world and America’s policies. Then when you do come of age, you’ll be ready and informed. Politics will affect your life.”

Student leaders such as Dylan want to be involved, according to leadership advisers—and they should be.

Traci Spain, leadership adviser at Houston High School in Germantown, TN, and executive director for the Tennessee Association of Student Councils, says involvement in elections helps students develop leadership skills. “Their ability to work with their peers is strengthened, as well as the ability to work with teachers, advisers, and principals. They gain organizational and time-management skills. They become empowered in who they are and what they can do. They become better leaders.”

According to Matt Alley, director of student services for the Michigan Association of Student Councils and Honor Societies, election involvement also teaches students to listen to various views, understand them, and take a stand. He recommends advisers emphasize students should make their own choice, using “a combination of internal fortitude and external information.”

“Blindly standing behind a candidate makes you a Democrat or Republican,” he says. “Standing up for your beliefs makes you a leader,” Alley says.

Igniting a Spark

Often, students simply enjoy a campaign, Kiesa says. They are inspired by a candidate or his or her message, or they just have fun with the process. Student leaders are often naturally competitive and interested in leadership. “We sometimes underestimate their interest, or potential interest, in the issues,” she says.

Key subjects about college debt and free community college, education, and even voting age—there is a move to make it 16—interest these students, but they are also concerned about international affairs and environmental issues. “There’s an incredible number of young people who care a great deal about issues that affect them, their families, and their communities,” Kiesa says. “Elections are one opportunity for young people to have an influence on conversations that affect them now and will affect them down the road.”

Getting them interested in current events first is often a link to an interest in politics, according to Charlie Baird, leadership adviser and civics teacher at Archbishop Hannan High School in Covington, LA. He asks students to read about an issue, report on it, and link it to a campaign. He thinks weekly discussions about campaigns keep students invested.

Kirk Livingston, an adviser at North Platte High School in North Platte, NE, says this year the media have helped students become very aware of the presidential candidates, and interest levels are high.

“For advisers or teachers trying to get students interested in the election, Donald Trump has been a dream,” he says. He also thinks getting them interested in current events is key, and he uses CNN Student News—a 10-minute daily news program online designed for middle and high school classes—to pique that interest. He notes that social media lends itself to election campaigns, and students are adept at using it.

Alley also says social media can engage students and help them get a more in-depth view of the election: “It helps younger voters follow the stages of candidacy, creating more in-depth knowledge of the primary elections and the overall selection of party candidates, which can further spark interest. They will feel more comfortable digging deeper on their own. Many individuals tune out if they cannot understand the underlying mechanisms.”

Dubé and others say that the involvement in elections can start in student leadership groups, but it really should spread schoolwide, and social media can help. She also recommends events to inform students, such as debates, announcements carrying information about the candidates, formation of campaign organizations within the school, and discussions about civics and elections in all types of classrooms. NHS chapters and student councils can lead such efforts, she says.

“Schools should provide a variety of curricular and cocurricular experiences,” says Niehoff. “During class time, teachers can invite civic leaders in, stage mock debates and elections, and do activities that help students understand the issues, the importance of our democratic rights, and the power of their individual and collective voices. Students can become involved in election processes through student council functions, volunteering in the community, and working directly on campaigns.”

They can also influence policy in ways that benefit young people, and they may add an important different perspective to the election process, Kiesa notes.

Making It Happen

One NHS chapter held an election assembly, working with a student theater group to do informational and humorous skits about local, state, and national elections. Student leaders at Shoshone High School in Idaho invited local candidates to speak, asking them to talk about how they got involved, why involvement is important, and key national issues. In high schools throughout Southern California, students have gotten more involved in elections by visiting an elementary school to educate younger students about the process.

Students also can get directly involved in campaigns or debates. Johnson says students in Las Vegas are going to have an opportunity to help with a presidential debate at a local college this year. Student leaders can choose a candidate and devote time to his or her campaign as volunteers.

Voter registration drives are also popular. The NHS chapter at Framingham High School in Massachusetts held a “Rock the Vote” registration effort, working with the national organization on a program that draws interest with performances by local musical groups and participation by organizations connected with young people. A similar event developed by student leaders at Montclair High School in Montclair, NJ, was very successful, according to local election officials, and students were happy to have it improve their reputation.

“I think that youth participation in the process is important, as it has been a point of contention that our generation is lazy,” says Meghan Brophy, a senior who organized the event. “This is a good way to show that young people are not apathetic and want to be involved, countering the narrative that’s out there.”

The Cooper City High School NHS chapter in Cooper City, FL, brought social studies classes to a registration table and provided gift cards to the class with the most students signed up. Boone County, KY, student leaders worked with local election officials to have a table at lunch to register students.

In California, Secretary of State Alex Padilla has been touring the state and visiting high schools to promote student registration efforts and a program to sign up students 16 and over to work at polling places. Texas has an engaging Project VOTE program (Voters Of Tomorrow through Education) with similar initiatives, but it includes information for young students.

In most states, the Secretary of State’s office is responsible for elections. The National Association of Secretaries of State has designated this month as National Voter Registration Month, and September 27 as National Voter Registration Day.

Paul Branagan, principal and student council adviser at Middleborough High School in Middleborough, MA, says students from the council and NHS worked together to become informed about candidates, then helped educate the students in the school and directed a mock election.

Student leaders at Northwestern Regional High School in Winsted, CT, for several years have held a mock election using the online service from www.nationalmockelection.org, with results being reported widely in the press. At Westwood High School in Austin, TX, the student council promotes a mock election in social studies classes, with announcements and posters in the halls.

No matter what or how extensive the involvement, advisers see participation in elections paying off in two ways: helping students grow as leaders and improving the whole election process with active participants who have new ideas and who might be involved for a long time to come.

“Being a part of something so important and big like these elections empowers the kids to do wonderful things with their lives,” says Sabina Baig, student council adviser at Elsik High School in Houston. “They set goals for themselves and start to dream big. Many students become members of other organizations, start volunteering and doing community service, and stay active in college and into the future. It can have an impact in so many ways.”


Jim Paterson is a writer and editor who has covered education for a variety of national publications. He also works as a school counselor in Montgomery County, MD, where he helped found an NJHS chapter. 

Sidebar: Promote Student Participation

Here are some easy ways to get students more involved in local, state, and national elections.

Their turn. Mock elections can be held in a variety of ways, from simple paper ballots distributed in the cafeteria to online functions linked to state or national results. The office for your state secretary of state and the National Student/Parent Mock Election (www.nationalmockelection.org) program are good places to start, along with the League of Women Voters (www.lwv.org).

Registration hesitation. Many students don’t understand that even if they aren’t 18, they can preregister to vote, which allows them to vote as soon as they are of age. Student leaders can work with local election officials to register students in their school, or generally volunteer to help with registration drives in the community. Some schools hold contests to get classes to compete for the most students registered.

Information please. Apart from educating themselves about the election process (and the candidates this year in particular), student leaders can make sure other students are informed by giving teachers (and not just social studies teachers) information about the election. Team up with the theater group or AP classes to present an assembly or announcements about the election. Work with younger students to inform them.

Firsthand experience. Get students to support a local or national candidate, or find an issue that it is important to them, find out the candidate’s stance, and promote awareness of it.

Ballot boosting. In some states, students as young as 16 can work at polls to assist voters, and there is plenty of work to be done by volunteers—either on election night or before.