Why did so many young people vote?

The unusually high turnout for a midterm election may be driven by better civic education, especially the hands-on kind that instills lifelong activism instead of cynicism and indifference.

AP
Sara Chadwick, of the March For Our Lives organization, checks her texts Nov. 6 at a phone bank for a get-out-the-vote event in Parkland, Fla.

One surprise in the midterm elections was how many young Americans made it a hands-on exercise in civics. An estimated 31 percent of those age 18 to 29 cast ballots. That was higher than what pollsters predicted. And it was well above the 21 percent turnout in 2014.

In fact, youth turnout in the 2018 election was the highest for any midterm in the past quarter century, according to a Tufts University study.

This is welcome at a time when more than half of adults in the United States do not know who Robert Mueller is. Or when more than two-thirds of Americans cannot name all three branches of the federal government.

Perhaps this year’s increase in youth voting was just another type of  “Trump bump.” Or perhaps a reaction to the shooting at a Parkland, Fla., high school. Or it was the draw of youth-oriented referendums, such as questions on marijuana legalization.

Another explanation is that many states have put a stronger focus on civic education, and not just the study of Pilgrims, Paul Revere, and Rosa Parks.

About 17 states require high school students to pass the citizenship exam before graduation. Many schools nationwide now weave civics into other courses. Since 2010, Florida has had especially rigorous requirements for civic education, perhaps one reason students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School were so prepared to campaign on gun limits.

A Massachusetts bill signed into law this week requires at least one student-led civics project in public schools and encourages students as young as 16 to register to vote (when they turn 18). And in a 21st-century update on civic education, the law also requires the teaching of digital media literacy and modern etiquette toward the American flag.

Learning civics and doing civics must go hand in hand. Those states with the highest rates of youth civic engagement (and volunteerism) are also the ones with the strongest courses in civic education, according to a study by the Center for American Progress.

Such an action-based approach to civic education may account in part for the rise in youth voting in the latest election. Political activism at an early age is a surefire way to counter youthful indifference about the future. A ballot cast is a bulwark against cynicism.

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