The Gap (Redux)

by Adam Fogel // Published March 7, 2008
While the Registration Gap between young people and the general population is a significant problem, an even more troubling gap is found in a new CIRCLE working paper titled, "Democracy for Some: The Civic Opportunity Gap in High School," by Joseph Kahne and Ellen Middaugh.

The authors "found that a student's race and academic track, and a school's average socioeconomic status (SES) determines the availability of the school-based civic learning opportunities that promote voting and broader forms of civic engagement." Furthermore, in all three of their studies, they observed that "students who are more academically successful or white and those with parents of higher socioeconomic status receive more classroom-based civic learning opportunities."

As I've written about previously, young people are turning out and voting at a higher rate than ever before during this presidential primary season. They are paying attention to the race and learning about the issues, but this study shows that not all young people are given the tools they need to become active participants in the democratic process. In fact, those young people who need the most attention (whose parents' don't vote) are getting even less classroom education about citizenship than those students who would probably be registered to vote anyway.

The numbers speak for themselves: In the Feb. 5th "Super Tuesday" contests, 18 to 29-year-olds with more education than high school were 18-percentage points more likely to vote than students with high school education or less. Put another way, 79-percent of the youth vote had more than high school education, while 21-percent had high school or less.

These facts, coupled together, should make youth voting activists take a step back and reevaluate how we talk about "the youth vote." While it's great that more young people are participating in the political process, we have to be aware that "young people" are not a monolithic group. Young people whose parents' don't vote or where their schools are not emphasizing civics (because they have to focus on reading, science, math, etc.) are being left behind. This inequity in schools is creating an underclass of citizens who lack the basic mechanics of participation. Things like how to request an absentee ballot or what it means to "vote provisionally" or even what to expect on Election Day, are basic lessons every young person should learn before graduation.

FairVote is working to ensure more young people who come from disadvantaged communities or whose parents don't participate in the political process have the same opportunities as their more affluent counterparts. We've introduced a civics curriculum called Learning Democracy that explores the history of suffrage and teaches the mechanics of participation. We also advocate for policies that makes conducing effective voter registration drives easier for high schools, like setting a uniform voter registration age of 16-years-old.

Both "gaps" that I've written about over the past couple of weeks are connected in a significant way. Voter registration policy in this county needs to put an emphasis on equality--ensuring all young people, regardless of their parents' voting behavior or where they grow up have an equal opportunity to register to vote and learn the mechanics of participation. As we move full-speed-ahead towards November's general election, I hope the media pays attention to these "gaps" in our civil society and the presidential candidates (of both parties) address this basic inequality in our education system.