Will Montpelier’s Youngest Voters Turn Out?

By Mike Dunphy

Just as with student participation in a classroom, voter participation during elections is essential to making democracy successful and beneficial to all. Unfortunately, the nation’s second-largest voting bloc (and soon to be largest)—Millennials and “Post-Millennials”—often participates the least, according to the data. In 2016, the Pew Research Center found that just 51 percent of them cast a ballot, compared with 63 percent of Gen X, 69 percent of Boomers, and 70 percent of those older.

Looking ahead to the midterms, which traditionally see fewer voters than in presidential years, polls show equally dismal numbers and often worse. One conducted in June by The Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic Monthly showed only 28 percent of those aged 18 to 29 say they are “absolutely certain” they’ll vote. A September Gallup Poll echoes this, with only 26 percent of the same age group saying they intend to vote.

On a local level, it’s difficult to say whether poll numbers will show the same low numbers, but what is sure, however, is that political consciousness is up in Montpelier High School, where The Bridge sat down to speak with three MHS seniors—Willem Slade, Adam Blair, and Sophia Currier—who plan to make their first votes this November.

“I haven’t heard anyone who says, ‘I don’t think I will vote,’ or  ‘I don’t see the importance,’” says Blair of his voting-eligible classmates.

For Slade, “The students at Montpelier High School are very socially aware of local politics as well as national politics. There’s talk a lot in classrooms by the students about what’s going on in the world and why it’s important to bring these topics up and take action.”

Certainly, the fact that that the high school sits a stone’s throw from the State House and inside an activist city helps, but Currier also credits the political discussions and engagement in the classroom. “I think our school definitely hits that mark,” she notes. “They very much make it a point that if you want change you should be able to go out there and vote and have your voice heard.”

“I think the students, especially in the twelfth grade, try to start to incorporate some of that talk into the class where it might not be normally incorporated,” Slade reflects. “Teachers might not have that in their curriculum necessarily, but the classrooms in Montpelier High School and the teachers are open to having those kinds of conversations.” Indeed, all three students noted particular attention to the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, which were streamed live in at least one classroom.

Political consciousness and discussion is often woven into the curriculum of the high school, starting in students’ freshman year, with a full semester government/civics class as part of a course called Principles of Social Studies, despite the fact that no civics course is actually required by the state of Vermont—one of 10 states that share this status.  Nor does Vermont require students pass a civics exam to graduate, as in 17 states.

That said, civics education is embedded in the state’s “global citizenship” standards, and schools develop their own standards regardless of whether they are part of an independent civics course or not. At MHS, civics education is woven into Principle of Social Studies, which includes a semester that asks students to  “focus on the U.S. political system with an in-depth view of the main forces of our government. A deeper look into the lawmaking process students will understand many different elements influencing change. Students will understand how power and authority have been used, abused, expanded and limited through the role of elected officials and everyday citizens.”

According to MHS teacher, Heather McLane, these “concepts” of civics are also woven into several other courses. “We study civics for between an eighth to a quarter of the year in a class called Global Issues and Perspectives (GIP),” she explains. “I also teach a semester-long economics course and have a little bit of civics woven into that.”

In GIP, for example, students take part in “Project Citizen,” where they tackle an issue, ideally on a state or local level. “They then spend the next two weeks researching the history of the problem and the constraints and the perspectives of different stakeholders,” McLane explains, “Then they compile their learning into a presentation or report and present the findings to the relevant policy makers.”

Examples of past projects presented to city council members were about banning plastic bags, whether to build a new rec center, leash laws, skateboarding ordinances, net-zero proposals, and so forth. To school administrators, committees, or the school board, students have discussed a no-homework policy, banning plastic water bottles in the cafeteria, merging with U-32, and improving integration of personalized learning plans into the curriculum.

Several clubs are also active on campus, including Club Action, which McLane advises. “They organized the Race Against Racism, advocated for gun safety with petitions, rallies, and advocated for a constitutional amendment in Vermont to fully ban slavery. This year they have organized the second annual Race Against Racism and now are working on get-out-the-vote efforts.”

Whether this translates into showing up at the polls remains to be seen, but the implication is clear. “I think a lot of the importance behind voting comes from those discussions,” Blair said, “and maybe we aren’t directly saying ‘This is why it’s important to vote,’ but we get to that by talking about issues.”

Students and teachers alike admit that while the issues are discussed and heavily engaged with by the students of MHS, the nuts and bolts of the voting process could perhaps get a bit more attention; for example how, when, and where to register; what the ballot looks like; when and where to vote; how to vote early or by mail; what to do if you are turned away; and so on. “I don’t know that we get a whole lot of structured teaching about voting and the importance of voting in class,” Slade reflects, while McLane notes, “Yes, I would agree that this is probably not focused on….”

For Currier, the motivation to vote may be damped by a perceived lack of respect from older generations. “Any vote counts. It just depends if people are going to take it seriously or not. To a lot of people, 18-year-olds are just mindless. We’re not old enough to be wise and know what’s going on. But we are just as aware, if not more so, because that’s what’s going to affect us when we’re 50.”

Sadly, it took bullets and blood in the classrooms of America to get many leaders to finally listen to students in a serious way.  “It’s the kids who are being shot,” Currier says, “so I think people took us more seriously with that topic.” No doubt it was helped by the walk-out of 150 Montpelier High School students on March 21, when they joined other Vermont high school students at a rally on the State House steps.  Gov. Phil Scott’s signature on a trio of gun-control bills—S.221, H.422, and S.55—soon after, in April, also seems to provide evidence they were listened to.

Will they ride this success to the voting booths? Only the election results will tell.

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