Institute Report Recommends Focus on Civics Education to Boost Voter Turnout

California elections have a turnout problem and one of the best ways to combat this shortfall is a more robust and comprehensive civics education in schools, according to a recent Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) report.

California Voter Turnout

According to the PPIC report, when seen in isolation, California has a turnout problem. In fact, California’s 2014 voter turnout hit record lows in both primary and general elections.

Californians are registering at the same rates as before, but they are not following through and casting a ballot as often, according to the report. This problem is mostly limited to midterm elections (both primary and fall general), although there is some evidence of a decline in presidential primaries as well. Fall presidential elections continue to draw voters as well today as they did 35 years ago. Thus, if there are concerns about turnout in California, midterm elections ought to be an area of special focus, the report states.

Compared to other states, however, California also has a registration problem, the report states. The registration rate has stayed flat in California, but climbed elsewhere. California’s recent adoption of automated registration could radically reduce the administrative burden of registering to vote, but what remains will be the same motivational and logistical barriers that impede turnout among the registered, the report comments.

Civic Education

The PPIC report recommends that one way to increase turnout is to focus on the low participation rates of young people and do a better job of acculturating them into the habit of voting.

There has been some work on this front already, the report notes. The recent California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning has offered a lengthy list of recommendations rooted in six “proven practices.”

“Those of us who have been advocating for civic engagement were pleased to see the Public Policy Institute’s report about the role that high quality civic education plays in increasing civic engagement,” said Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye. “I commend the work of education, law and business leaders who are amplifying the call for high quality civic learning in all schools, for all students.”

Chief Justice Cantil-Sakauye and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson established the California Task Force on K-12 Civic Learning to explore and elevate the status of civic learning and engagement in California.

Improving Civic Learning

According to the task force, the following core activities—“The Six Proven Practices”—are shown to improve the quality and effectiveness of civic learning, both in and out of the classroom, and ultimately build a stronger and more engaged society:

• Classroom instruction in government, history, law and democracy combining formal instruction of fact and documents with illustration and discussion demonstrating their relevance and application in today’s society.

• Discussion of current events and controversial issues, including their relevance to young people’s lives.

• Service learning experiences that are directly linked to curriculum and instruction and provide students a chance to apply what they are learning.

• Extracurricular activities that give students opportunities to get involved in their schools and communities, and work together toward a common goal.

• Student participation in school governance to cultivate a sense of responsibility and give students an opportunity to participate in the management of their own classrooms and schools.

• Simulations of democratic processes that allow students to participate in simulated voting, trials, legislative deliberation, and diplomacy.

Additional Research

The PPIC report cites additional research that suggests why these practices work and what will help them work better:

• Young people often distrust politicians and political institutions and feel that their participation in elections does not matter (Bowler and Donovan 2013; Blais et al. 2004).

• At the same time, they are surprisingly receptive to volunteering and activism (Andolina et al. 2003; Chareka and Sears 2006).

• At its best, civic education connects the latter to the former by imparting a broader understanding of institutional levers of power and connecting them to current events and local concerns (Bennett 2007; Hart et al. 2007).

The PPIC report concludes that civic education is one step in the process of improving voter registration and turnout. But aggressive outreach should become the new normal if we seek to increase participation, the report states.

The report may be accessed at here.