I spent election day 2004 volunteering at the polls, and I encountered several voters who told me worriedly that they had never voted before, and they didn't know what to do and how to vote. I wondered how many people hadn't even registered because of undefined confusion about the voting process. For this reason, I am glad to see that the Help America Vote Act has specifically designated funds for voter education (e.g., 42 U.S.C. § 15471).
The best way to learn about voting is by voting. One group that is eligible for HAVA grants is the "National Student/Parent Mock Election" Project, which reports that in 2004, over four million American students participated in various election education projects. In most, students pretended to vote for real candidates. My favorite, though, was the election that took place in Mary Wolf's second- and third-grade classes in Midvale, New Jersey. Her students voted on five issues that are vitally important to American second- and third-graders: school, ice cream, recess, homework, and television.
I have nothing against students participating in mock elections – they can provide wonderful educational opportunities – but I think students can learn more about the power of the ballot from a real election. Students who "voted" for Bush or Kerry knew that their vote didn't have any effect on the election, or on their current lives. But imagine if students were asked to vote on how they would spend their recess time, or on whether they would have homework on the weekends. Students would learn not just how to vote, but also why they should do so: because voting makes a difference.
Teachers planning projects like this should try to identify (1) issues that students care about, (2) issues that students have different opinions on, and (3) issues that students could appropriately be allowed to decide. For example, a school – or a school district – might allow students to decide what kinds of desserts would be served in the school cafeteria, or when a particular free day should fall. Let the Candy Bar Party duke it out with the Cookies Party. Let the Add-a-Day-to-Winter-Break Party explain why its choice is better than the Extra-Free-Day-in-March Party. The issues would be meaningful, and just like in real elections, students would have to live with the results.
For high school students, voting for student government leaders might be a good idea, but only if the student government actually has an impact within the school. For example, if one of the class officers' main responsibilities is planning a class trip, students could evaluate the practicality of campaign promises, and then could base the next year's vote on whether those promises were fulfilled. Just as importantly, high school students should be voting on real voting equipment. The school should plan its vote for a down-time at the county board of elections and have local elections officials talk to the students about how the voting equipment works. Ideally, the officials could bring the equipment to the school; if that's not possible, teachers could take the students to the board of elections to cast their ballots. Familiarity breeds familiarity, and students should have the opportunity to use the voting technology authorized in their county. A high school voting program can also allow students to register to vote as soon as they are eligible.
Students who have been voting on real voting equipment throughout their high school years – and who have seen the impact of their voting decisions – are better equipped to be active participants in the electoral process throughout their lives.