Voting and Civic Participation
This toolkit guides youth, educators, group leaders, families, and community groups as they investigate the issues of voting and civic engagement and prepare to take action. Contents:
- Current story
- Key questions
- Lessons and activities
- Resources in your community
- Project ideas and guide to service-learning
Advocacy through Policy Change
Everyone has a a voice to make a difference. Young people may have the best perspective on issues that affect them. It is important for leaders to listen and value what youth contribute. We usually speak up when we see a need and have a passion for change.
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.”
- Harriet Tubman
Share these videos of empowering youth voices and the history of voting
Become inspired to use your voice by watching this video about the Juvenile Law Center’s Youth Advocacy Program! This program prepares young people to lead advocacy and policy reform efforts in their local communities and beyond. Youth speak directly to government officials to influence people in power to make change. They have the opportunity to be heard. They say, "Once you speak up, you don't ever want to stop advocating." What do you want to speak to lawmakers about?
The video below outlines the history of voting, including the stories of when African Americans, women, and young people got the right to vote. If we sit on the sidelines, we give our power to someone else. What does it take to get YOU to vote?
Advocacy and VotingVoting is vital to a healthy democracy because a democracy is run by all its people. In our history, we all worked hard to break down barriers and have the ability to vote, so let's exercise that right.
Even if you are not old enough to vote, your voice can influence voters and lawmakers. Speaking up for what you know is important is called advocacy. Learning about issues and using our voice to advocate for change is a right and a civic responsibility in a democracy. You can also help others speak up so all voices are valued and heard.
- This guide defines advocacy and shares a variety of ways to take action.
- Getting ready for an election? This Michigan Voting Guide provides tips and links to help youth take action with their voice. If you are approaching voting age, make sure you register to vote in time. Look up your state age requirements well in advance.
Definitions and Key Questions
See the handout below for Vocabulary and Key Questions related to civil society.
As young people build knowledge and passion for voting and civic participation, they can look up vocabulary and read more about the issues and needs. Here are some of the relevant vocabulary words.
- voter suppression
Key Questions for Learning and Service:
These key questions may guide investigation or generate inquiry about other areas of interest. The best service-learning experiences follow the passions of youth and local concerns. Here are some sample questions:
- Why does each person's vote matter?
- Have you participated in an election before? This could be a student council election, voting for a team captain, etc. Why did you decide to participate in this election? How did your vote impact the outcome?
- Where do you see opportunities for growth related to participation in your community? How can you encourage others to get involved in issues you care about?
- How does your community address issues related to voting? Is voting accessible for everyone? Does your community host candidate forum nights? What can you do to improve voting within your community?
The ideals of the First Amendment were firmly planted in the colonies long before the adoption of the Bill of Rights. The rights of free speech and the right to petition the government without reprisal were advocacy bedrocks for the “Founding Fathers” as well as for the current advocacy leaders, such as Black Lives Matter. Share these background resources to inspire and inform youth about civil society.
- This guide from Civic Influencers contains data collected about issues and candidates as well as voter education and tools for getting out the vote.
- The United States Election Project publishes data about recent federal elections. Youth can learn about voter turnout by demographics, such as age, ethnicity and race, and education. Each state has a Secretary of State that publishes state election voter turnout results.
- The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University focuses its research on young people in the United States, especially those who are marginalized or disadvantaged in political life. Learn about recent youth voting trends here.
- Rhizome is a youth-powered nonprofit seeking to magnify civic participation and diversify the American vote. They create civic spaces to help young people treat service as the work of a lifetime.
- The League of Women Voters provides information about the election rules and deadlines in each state.
- Vote Smart can tell you exactly what each candidate's views and records are. Their voting records are documented and rated by various interest groups.
- Check out the claims of candidates at one of these sites: Politifact.com and FactCheck.org
- Rock the Vote is a nonpartisan nonprofit dedicated to building the political power of young people. Voting rules and deadlines as well as voting rights are broken down by state.
- Philanthropy through Social Activism: A Film Activity Guide includes a brief video clip and questions as an overview of American social justice movements.
- Youth Advocacy for Change is a toolkit for young people with tools about and for advocacy
Learning to Give has hundreds of lesson plans to inspire and inform youth action. Search our full list of government and civics lesson plans for topics that fit your interests and age of your kids. Narrow your search with keywords like Constitution, advocacy, or an issue area. Here are some sample lesson plans:
- Civic Virtue introduces concepts of civic virtue and nonprofit contributions
- Assessing Needs Through a Survey demonstrates the value of health and safety research as a form of civic participation
- Youth Advising in Action surveys community need, explores foundation funding process and explains how youth can play key roles
- I am a Hero for Animals includes an individual action/advocacy plan for animal welfare
- Power to the People explores civic participation via nongovernmental structures, especially nonprofits
- Constitution Day explores the content and story of the Constitution
For meaningful service-learning projects with long-lasting impact, connect youth to people and nonprofit organizations in the local community related to their civil society area of interest. This is an opportunity for a field trip (may be virtual) or for an expert to teach about issues and what is already being done. Youth may write, call, or interview experts about needs and partnerships.
Invite local leaders and activists to talk to your group.
Civil and Human Rights: The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights is a coalition of 200+ organizations.
Local politicians/officials (city council representatives, mayor, city commissioner, state representatives)
- Local activists who share information and organize events (environment, human rights, hunger, foster care, etc.)
- Local political party office
- City Hall or library
There are four types of service. The ideas below are grouped by these types. The best service-learning experiences follow the passions of youth and local concerns. These are provided to start conversations and ideas.
This overview Guide for Planning Service-Learning describes each step of the process and actions to take.
This blank chart for Planning Service-Learning helps youth prepare for who does what for maximum service and learning impact
- Register to vote if you are 18 or older.
- Research rules and guidelines about where, when, and how to register to vote. Create a registration guide. Conduct a voter registration drive.
- Get involved in a local initiative, fundraiser, service project, community meeting, or event.
- Volunteer at events that are sponsored by local or state government.
- Create a guide about an issue you care about and share it with friends.
- Practice active listening with this Service Sparks: Listen with Generosity guide
- This Service Sparks: Advocacy Posters project helps you use images and words to inform and persuade to make change.
- Using social media, help spread information about election logistics and encourage people to vote
- Using social media, create an information campaign about an issue of concern to you and your peers
- Create voting buttons, brochures, and PSAs to persuade about an issue or encourage voting.
- Volunteer for a campaign.
- Share information about elections other than Presidential: school board, city council, and judges, as well as ballot issues.
- Learn about community resources that help with community mental health.
- Read books about democracy and the Constitution.
- Research the importance of fair representation on jury duty. Advocate for best practices in your county.
- Learn about local issues and share information on social media.
- Learn about how the election process works. Teach others.
- Attend a candidate forum and advocate for issues of concern to young people
- Involve youth in a petition or local community advocacy efforts. Contact local community activists or nonprofit organizations as resources.
- Hold a community information night to inform community members why voting is important.
- Learn more about media bias and how to know when something is true and when to share it.
- Meet with lawmakers or write a Letter to Your Representative
- Research and report on the history and current status of the Voting Rights Act
- Research rules and guidelines about where, when, and how to register to vote.
- Research and create a Citizen’s Quick Guide to an issue
- Youth could research what it's like as a day in the life of a president or another governmental official. They could present to other classes or the school on their findings for President's Day.
- Learn and share the history of voting rights of different populations (women, people of color).
Say Something literature guide provides before, during, and after-reading discussion questions. Perfect for youth activists everywhere, this timely story reminds readers of the undeniable importance and power of their voice.
Sometimes People March literature guide provides discussion questions for this picture book that tells of people working for change. This book inspires the reader about using their voice together with others. It is a celebration of our common humanity and illustrates the importance of working together.
Ways to use quotes with youth: Use it to spark conversation. Write about its meaning or do research on the person or topic. Represent the quote visually and display in social media. Tell whether you agree or disagree with the quote. Rewrite it to speak for you.
“Voting is the most precious right of every citizen, and we have a moral obligation to ensure the integrity of our voting process.” — Hillary Clinton
“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” — Abraham Lincoln
“The vote is precious. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it.” — John Lewis
“It's not enough to just want change ... You have to go and make change by voting.” — Taylor Swift
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.