Only 16 percent of eligible voters under the age of 30 cast ballots in the 2014 midterm elections. Last year, public figures from Taylor Swift to Barack Obama took to social media to mobilize young people. But some experts say the long-term solution to low youth turnout is better civics education.
Here & Now's Peter O'Dowd speaks with Nathan Bowling (@nate_bowling), who teaches government and human geography at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Washington, and hosts the Nerd Farmer Podcast (@nerdfarmpod) on civics, education and culture.
It turns out that only nine states and the District of Columbia require civics education in public high schools. Bowling says that is partly driven by the emphasis on standardized testing.
“So essentially a lot of civics classes have been pushed to the side in order to offer students additional support in math and reading,” he says. “And not that math and reading aren't important, but our civics and our democracy [matter] a lot.”
On why voter turnout among young people is historically low
“Well, I think it's kind of a two-sided problem. On one side, people turn out to vote when they have something either to gain or something to lose. And politics in America today doesn't have a lot to offer young people right now. On the other side of the equation, you have a situation where states that know that young people tend to be liberal voters are actually making it harder for them to vote. So I think about like Iowa made it basically impossible for college students who were in Iowa to vote as Iowa residents, and instead made them vote for their home states. And so it's a kind of two-sided thing like we're not offering students and young people a lot politically, and then we're making it more difficult for them to vote in many states.”
On why older people score highest on U.S. citizenship questions
“I think that civics is kind of like language. So like I have traveled in Latin America and learned Spanish several times. As I don't use my Spanish, my Spanish skills deteriorate. And I think civics is the same way. If you learn civics in high school, and then aren't engaged politically, your muscles atrophy. But older folks have more to risk in every election. There's a reason why they turn out to vote like basically Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are on the ballot in every election, and they know that, and they show up.”
"This generation that is coming up today is tremendously engaged in politics and cares about what's happening. I think they're also very skeptical, if not cynical, about our national politics."Nathan Bowling
On celebrities encouraging young people to vote
“Honestly like registering to vote is only half the battle. You also have to go to the polls. So Oregon has gotten rid of voter registration; you're just automatically registered to vote. And here in Washington state, you can register online via Facebook, and then we vote 100 percent by mail. And for me when I'm talking to my students, like I berate them. Like we vote by mail, there's no excuse. And so for me in my classroom like we vote shame, and my students don't like need a celebrity to do that.”
On how he gets his students engaged in civics
“One aspect of politics that I think that we do injustice with is we pay too much attention to national politics and to the presidency. And so we spend a lot of my time in my classroom talking about the importance of state government and all the things state governments can do, and like all the powers that come through the 10th Amendment. And one of the things my students walk out of my classroom understanding each year is that Congress actually has far more power than most Americans think they do. And essentially everything that Donald Trump is doing right now, if you like it, then you should maintain a Republican Congress, and if you dislike it, you should try to overturn Congress.”
On if he thinks young people are engaged in politics despite not voting
“I think this generation that is coming up today is tremendously engaged in politics and cares about what's happening. I think they're also very skeptical, if not cynical, about our national politics. And with your Parkland example you bring up, I think that's actually demonstrative of what I was talking about earlier about state politics. The national conversation about gun control policy is basically dead, and it doesn't matter what happens. There'll be no national movement. There is room for movement at the state level. And if you look at the Parkland shooting, those kids went to the Florida Capitol, not the national Capitol. And so refocusing some of that energy on state politics, I think is a way to re-engage students into politics.”
This segment aired on October 22, 2018.