Teenage Voting: Democracy Week's Primary Objective

by Shawn Healy, Civic Learning Scholar 

Chicago elections are famous for the slogan, "Vote early and vote often." However, Illinois voters rarely live up to this adage. Turnout for national and state elections fall below national averages, and youth voting in local elections is abysmal, ranking 47 among 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Next month, Chicago Public Schools (CPS), in partnership with the Board of Elections, the McCormick Foundation, and a coalition of other civic organizations, is seeking to reverse this disturbing statistic. During "Democracy Week," scheduled for February 3-7, CPS and its partners plan to orchestrate a massive voter registration drive among high school students in an effort to capitalize on "Suffrage at 17" legislation passed last year. The new law enables 17-year olds to vote in the March 18 Primary so long as they will be age 18 by Election Day in November.

CPS has approximately 35,000 students in its nearly 150 high schools that are eligible to vote in March, and the "Democracy Week" coalition hopes to register at least 25,000 of them by the February 18 deadline. CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett urges high school principals to celebrate "Democracy Week" by providing a central location for voter registration, making time for students to register and encouraging teachers to educate students about 2014 candidates, prevailing issues, and the electoral process.

The "Democracy Week" coalition is supporting schools, principals, and teachers in a myriad of ways, all of which are free-of-charge. Two of the organizations, the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago and the Mikva Challenge, have designed a six-lesson voter education curriculum package for teachers to use in their classrooms.

The Board of Elections has created voter registration posters for display at schools along with a robust website with more information about "Suffrage at 17." Finally, the Mikva Challenge is engaging students in local campaign work and also training them to serve as election judges.

Collectively, "Democracy Week" takes the "vote early" segment of the Chicago slogan literally with the assumption that these pioneering high school students will "vote often" as lifelong participants in our democracy.


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