Experts say high school is the best time for future voters to truly explore the voting and election process. (Photo courtesy of the Maryland Department of Planning)

by Kara Thompson,
MDDC Intern

Most Americans know the basics of the election process by the time they reach age 18 and receive the right to vote. We know presidential elections happen every four years, but oftentimes, less attention is paid to other elections that occur. Ask the average American about midterms that happen every two years, and elections on state and local levels and you will get a range of answers. 

But how much do most citizens know about the candidates, and the election process as a whole? More specifically, how much are the eligible voters in high school being taught about current election processes and procedures?

As it turns out, not that much. But this isn’t necessarily for lack of desire to teach these kinds of topics, but rather a lack of time to fit it in the already-packed curriculum during a global pandemic.

“It’s hard to get through the amount of curriculum that teachers have to get through, and especially [in] American government [classes]. They’re actually preparing for an end of course assessment that they have to take,” said John Billingslea, social studies director for Baltimore County Public Schools. “That tends to take precedence over other pieces of materials.”

Given the COVID-19 pandemic, this has been an especially trying year for teachers, Billingslea said. Though schools have been focused on getting through the material, first they have to ensure that the class has a teacher. Many administrators have found themselves working extra hard to cover classes when several staff members are absent with COVID infections.

Billingslea said he recognizes that voting is important, adding that there are supports in place within County Schools for students who will soon be eligible to register and vote. He did note that this push usually occurs in the fall and not the spring.

Laura Antkowiak, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says that school– specifically high school– is the best time for students to learn about these kinds of topics.

“Political scientists have discovered the kinds of experiences that individuals have during their coming-of-age years—like in the late teens—right before and around the time they’re eligible to start voting, have an outsized impact on how they view the political world and participate in the political world going forward.”

According to Antkowiak, things like registering to vote and other practical parts of the election process are not emphasized in schools as much as the institutions and history of government in this country, which can also be problematic.

[Students] lack the follow through in terms of having the knowledge, motivation  and persistence to jump through all the hoops that are involved with getting yourself set up to vote in the United States,” she said. “[There are] questions like figuring out how to register to vote, figuring out where your polling place is, figuring out how you go about casting a vote, figuring out where you learn the information.” 

Redistricting is an important part of the election process- especially true this year. Maryland’s primary elections, which usually take place in June, were delayed until July 19 over issues with the new legislative maps that were drawn with information from the 2020 census. 

“Redistricting is the process of drawing lines on a map such that citizens are paired with a particular set of eligible candidates for office,” said Antkowiak. “The districts need to get redrawn every 10 years in order to reflect population shifts measured by the census.”

While Antkowiak believes it is more important for those who have been voting for many years to understand, as it might change where they are voting and who they are voting for, it is still an important concept for students to know for other reasons. 

“It raises some interesting normative questions about who has the power to draw lines. How should we determine how citizens are represented?” she said.

Right now, lessons about redistricting are only covered in American government classes.

“For Baltimore County, I had the proposed redistricting maps that we provided department chairs, but because of COVID we didn’t really have a chance to unpack that with them, and so they probably did not unpack it with their staff,” said Billingslea. “We didn’t turn them into any lessons that had to be taught.”

Billingsley said the election process is still taught in schools and in more critical years of presidential or gubernatorial elections, candidates and their party platforms and perspectives are examined a little more closely.

“I think we start with, in this case, the baby voting steps first. And then it’s your responsibility as a citizen—anyone’s responsibility—to develop and delve into the local issues,” Billingslea said.

Local politics tend to be more politically charged, and more unique to different areas. One curriculum would not be able to envelop the differences between two different areas of a county, and the different beliefs people may have within them.

Billingslea said teachers can support students in registering to vote and spend time teaching about the bigger elections, in the hopes that students grow into the politics and look into things on their own.

To view the new legislative maps for this year’s elections visit Maryland.gov

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