Leading up to the 2004 presidential election, studies showed that adults ages 18-24 had the lowest voting and registration rates among all age groups. This information inspired Professor Jo-Anne Hart to try to better understand the low turnout and get involved.
As an educator with a PhD in political science, Hart put her scholarship into action, setting out on a mission to help grow the population of youth voters. Of course, she didn’t realize at the time that her research would be translated into several languages, published in the Middle East, Europe, Indonesia and Pakistan and become GrowingVoters.org.
Start ’em young
In her research, Hart found that, “If a young person (18-22) doesn’t start voting and is apathetic, they may never actually vote and we may lose them for good.”
With this in mind, she began to develop nonpartisan, constructivist, hands-on activities and projects related to the election that teachers could use in the classroom. These ideas, along with lists of resources and civics websites safe for young students, became the basis of GrowingVoters.org. Now in its sixteenth year, it is and always has been free to use.
The 2020 election marks Hart’s fifth edition and update to the website, yet this election brings many unprecedented issues and questions as we face a pandemic that is changing the way citizens are voting.
With many classrooms virtual this year, Hart spent the last few months pivoting Growing Voters to create user-friendly virtual approaches for educators.
Although this has been a transition, Growing Voters is no stranger to the power of the internet and technology to involve students’ voices. Hart notes the internet’s role in helping young people “develop their sense of all the ways you can participate and express yourself and get your voice as part of the whole system even before you can vote.”
Hart’s lesson plans and activities are designed to be used with students as young as age 6. Students design their own campaign strategies, simulate media buys, hack the debate spin, conduct their own polls and produce their own campaign or issues ads.
One project invites students to create pamphlets on the importance of voting. In the process, they conduct research and answer for themselves the question of why a person should vote. As an extension, students can participate in what Hart called a “civics lemonade stand” handing out their pamphlets to those who are eligible to vote.
“As soon as that happens, they are participating in the political system,” she says. “They own that material, know what’s in it.”
Hart initially worked with students in Lesley’s Graduate School of Education to brainstorm a variety of activities across elementary, middle and high school groups.
“There are all kinds of active hands-on ways to get students doing this work and then by the time they can vote, they are already participating and forming their habit to participate in the political system and to get their voice and creativity into the system,” Hart says.
Growing Growing Voters
Growing Voters is built using the same do-it-yourself ethic that it promotes. Continuing to add activities each year and making adaptations as the political climate has changed, Hart has seen a steady an increase in traffic to the website. During the 2016 election season, there were just short of 40,000 visitors, coming from every state in the U.S.
Hart has designed specific activities to incorporate social media into classroom lessons, including designing ads, polling users on their social media, and more. Through some of the lessons, educators can examine media literacy, the impact of social media and so-called fake news.
Growing Voters also helps teachers tackle the tricky terrain of divisiveness.
“The politics that have gotten so divided in our country have come into the classroom and really thwarted even being able to get kids involved and interested in our electoral politics,” Hart says.
To addressing these concerns, she built in activities for students to practice active listening, such as finding common ground and exhibiting respect.
“With a grounding in listening techniques, students here play the role of the political parties and candidates to listen to find out the areas they agree on.” Through this activity, students practice engaging in respectful listening even through disagreements.
With vote by mail and absentee ballots being a primary source for voters in the midst of a pandemic, experts estimate that it may take a number of days for results to come back. Hart has attempted to prepare activities to equip educators to follow up and continue the conversation about the election results as this process unfolds.
Hart also added applications to help college faculty bring the election to their students.
Ultimately, she has one message for young voters this election season: “Get in the game! Have your voice heard as part of the process, beyond just voting get involved in politics and take time to inform yourself.”