Editor’s Note: Roger Brooks is President and CEO of Facing History and Ourselves, an educational nonprofit that offers content and teaching strategies to promote student engagement, critical thinking and deeper understanding of the lessons of history. The views expressed here are solely those of the author. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Electoral no-shows, citizens who choose not to vote, constitute the most powerful bloc in American politics. In the 2016 elections, the 102.7 million no-shows vastly outnumbered the 63 million who voted for Donald Trump and the 65.9 million who voted for Hillary Clinton. Educating the electorate is the surest way to increase motivation to turnout so that election results might better match the will of the people.
It’s not elitist to insist on educating voters. Indeed, students who learn about moral reasoning, building arguments and evaluating historical events show significant increases in civic literacy and in rates of voting in America.
Part of the problem is the uneven availability of education: if you are poor, you are, as researchers have said, “less likely to be aware of policy and ideological differences between the presidential candidates,” so you have less incentive to vote.
Pervasive education in civics matters, even within the current presidential cycle. About 22 million new voters – now high school juniors and seniors with more diversity than previous generations – will be 18 by the 2020 presidential election. And younger voters have stayed away from the polls in the past. Superstars like Beyoncé and Jay-Z may have endorsed Hillary Clinton, but while young people turn out in masses for their concerts and events, a large portion did not show up at the polls.
To change this trend, we can do two things. First, let’s think strategically about how we educate young people in civic literacy and engagement. Groups like 22x20, iCivics, and Facing History and Ourselves are providing an education oriented around civic literacy and engagement, which could build a new cadre of voters.
Focusing on students’ identities in relationship to their communities and critical moments in history when democracy nearly failed, as well as the choices that shaped those historical moments, can help galvanize students to participate in democracy.
For example, using lessons from the Facing History curriculum, young people created Engage Memphis, a campaign with a goal to encourage and re-engage 1,000 people to vote. At their recent summit, 300 students gathered to talk about issues they cared about, emphasize the importance of voting and share what they learned. Although these students are too young to vote now – they are all under 18 – they are learning to find their voices so they can one day demand accountability and bold action from leaders on the issues that matter most to their communities.
Second, we must support the growing, national movement to institute a new type of civics curriculum that goes beyond information about the mere workings of government – one that fosters the development of a more humane and informed citizenry. This new approach balances academic rigor with the skills of social-emotional learning, including the abilities to shift perspective, act with personal agency and articulately give voice to one’s opinions and beliefs.
We who voted in the last election bear a heavy responsibility. I believe we are morally obligated to educate, engage and empower the entire electorate. This is the education our rising voters need, and it is within our power to give it to them. It could make all the difference; even small increases in voters can make an outsized impact.
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Empowering the no-shows – by educating them in critical thinking and the careful evaluation of evidence – could ensure that electoral results would more likely match the will of the largest proportion of Americans.