Talking Voting Rights With Teens

BGCA’s Director of Programs and Innovation Erica Warren is BACK with some ways to help teens understand the importance of voting rights.

Did you know that your teen members can preregister to vote as early as age 16 in some states? As we work to help our members grow into adulthood, it’s important to start talking to them early about the right and the privilege to vote for our country’s leaders. Voter turnout among 18–29-year-olds is consistently lower than any other age bracket. One way to increase participation is to help the youth understand voting and help them get registered.

Register To Vote Voter Registration GIF by INTO ACTION - Find & Share on GIPHY

Here are other ways to help teens understand the importance of using their vote:

Historicize the right to vote.

Almost every group of people has had to fight for the right to vote in this country and some groups, like formerly incarcerated individuals, are still fighting. In the country’s original founding documents, only white males who owned land were allowed to vote. In the 1820’s property qualifications started eroding, allowing all white males to vote. In 1870 at the conclusion of the Civil War, the 15th Amendment was ratified and gave the right to vote to Black males, but many states enacted literacy tests, poll taxes, and other Jim Crow laws to prevent Black men from voting. One of these laws endures in many states today—laws that permanently rescind the right to vote from persons convicted of felonies. In 1920, the 19th Amendment was ratified giving women the right to vote. But it wasn’t until 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act that Black women and Black men would truly achieve voting equality. To this day, activists are fighting for the rights to make voting more accessible to more people. Initiatives like early voting, mail-in voting, and making federal elections a national holiday are all being debated.

Explain dis/enfranchisement (and other voting jargon).

Discussions on the news about voting rights and voting laws tend to use vocabulary that youth may not be familiar with, like disenfranchisement, which is when a state actor or body deprives someone of the right to vote. While you are at it, help youth understand terms like primary, general election, mid-term election, ballot measure, republican and democrat. These terms are used so frequently that we sometimes forget that young voters might not know what they mean and might even be embarrassed to ask. Spelling these things out in a safe space like the Club will help teens understand the national, state, and community discourses around voting and other issues.

Help them get an ID and registered to vote.

Many states allow youth to preregister to vote (see the table below as well as our previous post State by State Registration Guide), but most states also require identification. This does not mean they need a driver license. Some youth (or their parents) may not want a driver’s license, so they can obtain a state identification card instead. If a youth will be turning 18 prior to the next election, plan to get identification before the registration deadline for that election. To learn how to obtain ID in your state, search “how to get an ID in _______” and the state site should be one of the first results.

Here’s a quick guide on preregistration ages (note this is current as of 2022):

Preregistration AgeState
16California, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Utah, Virginia and Washington
17Maine, Nevada, New Jersey, West Virginia
17.5* If they turn 18 before the next electionGeorgia, Iowa, Missouri
90 days before turning 18Alaska
17 years +10 monthsTexas
Anytime as long as you will turn 18 by the next election (usually general election)Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Connecticut, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolia, South Dakota, Tennessee, Vermont, Wisconsin, and Wyoming
No preregistration requiredNorth Dakota

Help them find their ballot and do some research.

We never want to tell our youth who to vote for, but we can help them find their ballot before the election and point them to credible sources to find information about the candidates and the issues they care about. You can find sample ballots on your state Secretary of State website. Learn more about talking about elections without being partisan in this blog:

Model citizenship.

Youth (even teens!) are always watching. You can model citizenship by explaining to youth how you get information about candidates and issues that you care about, helping them understand credible sources for information, and staying informed about issues in your community and state. Again, you do not need to share with youth how you feel about any topic, but you should be able to point them to sources where they can learn and form their own opinions. And wear that I Voted sticker to the Club!

Help older teens register as poll workers.

Teens in many districts can get in on the action (and possibly earn some pay!) by registering as a poll worker. Poll workers help ensure elections are safe, fair, and efficient and are a great way to practice citizenship (it also looks great on college applications!).

Find activities to run in the Club for teens and younger youth in this throwback ClubX Blog post:

How do you encourage Good Citizenship at your Club? What are your best advocacy programs? We want to know! Comment below, on the BGCA Youth Development Facebook page, or email ClubXBlog@bgca.org.


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