How Elections Work and Why Voting Matters for Kids

4 min to read
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November elections are coming up, and if your children have noticed the campaign ads on TV or signs on lawns, this is a good time to teach them about elections, why voting matters, and why people vote.

Besides the fact that voting is a cornerstone of our country’s way of life, literally millions of people take part in elections every year. It’s good to teach your online students about elections, why voting matters, and what their role is in elections. 

Why Is It Important to Vote?

The United States saw a record turnout for the 2020 elections, with 66.8 percent of citizens age 18 and older voting, the U.S. Census Bureau says. Prior to that, nearly 56 percent of the U.S. voting-age population cast a ballot in the 2016 election, and the record was 58 percent in 2008, according to the Pew Research Center.

These figures tell us that nearly half of eligible voters sit out major elections in our country. Off-year, or non-presidential, elections  typically draw even fewer voters. Why do people choose to not have their say about who runs our country?

Books, articles and blog posts by the score have tried to answer the age-old “Why should I vote” question. 

Some say we have a duty to vote as citizens of a democracy and beneficiaries of government services, such as roads and fire department protection, as well as the rights established by the U.S. Constitution.

Some research suggests that people are motivated to vote because they want to “fit in” with other voters. Others vote because they believe their vote will make a difference. You can stoke your youngster’s enthusiasm with six stories of how one vote changed an election.

A child creating a sign that says Vote.

Ways to Get Kids Involved in Elections

Kids can’t vote until they turn 18, of course, but there are ways for kids to get involved in elections:

  • Be informed. Kids can read about political issues and decide where they stand—and why

  • Be heard. In addition to you and your children discussing issues and candidates, they can voice their opinions on social media, in school or local newspapers, or in other public forums.

  • Volunteer. Local candidates would welcome an enthusiastic teen ready to join a phone bank, participate in door-to-door outreach, write postcards, or to generally help out at campaign headquarters. 
A child enjoying learning about voting for kids.

Teaching Kids Why Voting Matters

New Voters, a student-run nonprofit working to expand the youth vote by organizing voter registration drives in high schools across America, says engaging youth in the election process during high school will prepare them to be frequent and informed voters in the future. They propose a curriculum emphasizing knowledge of politics, critical-thinking, civic-mindedness, civic responsibility, and understanding the value and role of democracy in our country.

You can introduce younger students to elections by teaching six simple concepts

  • Vote/Voting. Your vote is how you say what you want. By voting, a group of people can come to a fair decision when they do not all agree.

  • Democracy. A democracy is a type of government. In a democracy, people vote to choose government leaders. Sometimes they may vote for or against certain laws or projects in their community. 

  • Candidate. People who want to be government leaders declare that they are a candidate for the job. Usually, there is more than one candidate for each job, so people vote for the candidate they think would do the best job.
  • Campaign. A candidate has to persuade people to vote for them. This is called “campaigning” for the vote. In a campaign, candidates talk to people several ways, such as in person, in speeches, and in advertising.
  • Election. When a group of people votes, it is called an election. Another word for election is “poll.” On election day, people go to polling places to vote. In some places, voters have several days to vote. Polling places are often in schools, community centers, or other public buildings. Sometimes, people can vote by mail.
  • Ballot. A ballot is a form that shows voters the choices they have in an election. Sometimes it is on paper, but some polling places use machines. Each voter is given a ballot so they can indicate their choice—their vote. 

Demonstrate how elections work with a family vote

Choose what to have for dinner, what movie to watch, or what to do next weekend or for the holidays.

  • Make up ballots with suggestions.
  • Explain that everyone in the family gets one vote.
  • Let everyone make a short pitch for their favored choice.
  • Mark your ballots.
  • The meal, movie, activity, or destination with the most votes wins.

Let a younger child count the votes and announce the winner. (Then, if necessary, have a lesson about veto powers.)

Additional Resources About Voting for Kids

Learning Coaches who need a refresher should check out How Stuff Works: How Midterm Elections Work. Writer Dave Roos explains off-year voting and points out that, “While the presidential election isn’t decided by popular vote (remember the electoral college?), midterm elections give Americans a chance to vote directly for the politicians who will likely have the greatest impact on their daily lives.” 

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