Using Elections to Teach Civic Engagement

TM. Sell, Highline College,

 This essay was originally published in the Political Science Educator’s Fall 2020 series.  

Every fall, I build parts of my political science classes around the elections. That may seem obvious, but I believe it can work in a way that helps get students to care.

All of our circumstances are different – different students, different communities, different levels of interest in politics and government. At Highline College, south of Seattle, our political science classes generally fill up with students who are technically still in high school. They come via a state program called Running Start, which lets high school juniors and seniors take college courses on the state’s nickel.

After a generation of K-12 education focused on getting students to pass standardized tests, the runners, as I call them, are not only very young, they’re also ill-prepared. They’re intelligent and capable, but generally not quite ready for college. I see my job as helping them to get there. Above all, they are generally not political science majors and they haven’t really learned how government might affect them. They’re only taking political science at Highline to fulfill their high school civics requirement.

Washington state has elections every year: Statewide and legislative races in even-numbered years; local races in odd-numbered years.

This provides me with a couple of opportunities. First, I bring in a steady stream of guests. As we’re in a highly populated suburban area, we’ve got lots of nearby legislators, city councilmembers and mayors, water commissioners and school board members who are happy to come speak.

Many of them are candidates, either running for office or seeking re-election. They’re not all great speakers, or even completely rational (one candidate said she was in favor of gun control but then she also worried about something like “Red Dawn.” Even my students later remarked, “that’s a movie.”)

But that’s rather the point. I want them to see who’s on the ballot, and what can happen if you don’t vote.

That’s only step one, however. They all have to write a paper comparing two local candidates seeking the same office in that election. We walk through what kinds of questions they should ask, and where they might get information: websites, media reports, and trying to interview the candidates through any means available. If there are any candidate forums, I make sure the students know about them.

We also talk about the things candidates often say, and whether they make any sense. Students often initially are excited by candidates who vow to “fight” for one cause or another, and who promise to throw down the gauntlet in front of the tyranny of the mayor until they get what they want. But then we talk about how politics actually works, and whether that kind of approach gets you very far.

Naturally, we also spend time talking about the nature and roles of the governments involved in these elections – the legislature, the city council, the school board – whatever’s on the ballot. I try to be sure they have the context to understand what this particular government does – and why there’s no point in calling the mayor if you’re unhappy with the schools.

What I have found, particularly with younger students, is that if there’s anything I want them to do, I will probably have to teach them how to do it. So we spend some time on how to write a good essay, for example. Any number of them will have been taught to begin with “In this essay, I’m going to tell you…” To which I respond, “I know! I made the assignment!”

Generally speaking, they need help with how to do research, what questions to ask, and how to think critically about what people say in politics. There’s some heavy lifting involved, but it tends to pay off in the end. For example, one local mayor tends to go off on some wild tangents when he comes to talk about city government. And then, inevitably, one of my students will raise a hand and ask, “Can you please talk about the city? We have to write a paper about this.”

In the end, when I ask them a question about it, nearly all of them will say the same thing: We need to get out and vote. And that gets me through all the way to the next term.


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