LESSON

Why Local Elections Matter

In this lesson, students explore the ways that decisions by local government affect their lives. They’ll review research and data about a few recent local elections to push back against the myth that a single vote doesn’t count. They’ll learn how laws in their state encourage or suppress voter engagement. And in an extension activity, eligible students learn how to register to vote.
Grade Level

Objectives

At the end of the lesson:

  • Students will be able to identify some of the ways local and state governments affect their lives.
  • Students will recognize the impact of a single vote.
  • Students will be able to identify how their state’s laws work to encourage or discourage voter participation.
  • Eligible students will register to vote.
Essential Questions
  • How do elections affect our daily lives?
  • How do governments encourage or discourage their citizens from voting?
  • How can I make a change in my community?
Materials

Vocabulary

Voter suppression [voh-ter suh-press-shun] (noun): an effort or activity designed to prevent people from voting by making voting impossible, dangerous or just very difficult. Voter suppression can be legal and organized (e.g., literacy tests or laws limiting the number of polling places), illegal and organized (e.g., mailers or robocalls telling people to vote on the wrong day), or illegal and unorganized (e.g., an individual showing up to a polling place to intimidate others into not voting).

Voter registration [voh-ter regh-uh-stray-shun] (noun): the process by which people are added to voter rolls and thereby allowed to vote. Voter registration is required in every U.S. state with the exception of North Dakota. In some places, voters are automatically registered. In others, they must fill out, mail in or even notarize a registration form more than a month ahead of an election.

Voter roll [voh-ter role] (noun): the official list, maintained by each secretary of state, of who is eligible to vote in state and federal elections. People who have been removed from voter rolls are not allowed to vote, even if they have registered. 

Note to the Teacher

We are publishing this lesson in the fall of 2020, as many educators are teaching remotely. Where necessary, the procedure for this lesson includes adaptations for classes meeting online. 

For this lesson, whether you’re teaching in person or remotely, you will need to prepare some materials in advance. These include voting requirements in your state, voter turnout data from a recent local election and election results from your district’s most recent State House or Senate race. Students should have some way to access this information, either through a handout or a slide.

Procedure

  1. Begin with an “Alphabet Brainstorm” warm-up to get students thinking about the many ways government shapes our lives. Ask students to work in groups to alphabet brainstorm answers to the question, “How does government affect our lives?” Explain that they’ll list one answer for every letter of the alphabet. Provide a few examples: A = Airport security. Z = Zoos. After a few minutes, have students share their answers aloud. 
  2. Introduce the lesson, letting students know you’ll be discussing state and local elections. Inform them that voter turnout is much lower in local and state elections than in national (particularly presidential) elections.  Ask students to take a minute or two to free write answers to the question, “Why would people vote in a presidential election but not a local or state election?” 
  3. Ask students to share their responses. As they do, flag for them three points that will be key to the lesson: the idea that local government doesn’t matter (e.g., “The mayor doesn’t do much.”), the belief that a single vote doesn’t matter and the effects of voter suppression (e.g., “People don’t have time to vote; the lines are too long.”). Let students know that these are three ideas you’ll be focusing on today.
  4. Help students recognize the significance of local elections using the “Who Decides?” handout. Have students take five minutes or so to work in groups, reviewing the handout and guessing “who decides” the answer to each of the questions listed. Ask students to share their answers aloud. They’ll likely note that none of these decisions are made at the federal level. As they share, you can use the answer key to identify more specifically who makes these decisions.
  5. After reminding students that you’ve now disproved the first point, that local government doesn’t matter, let them know you’ll be moving on to the next reason often offered to explain why people don’t vote in local elections: that one vote doesn’t matter.
  6. Share the election results for your district’s most recent State House or Senate race. If possible, share voter turnout from a recent mayoral election. Ask students to do a little quick math to see how many people would have needed to change their votes for a different outcome. In most cases, the number will be fewer than 500. Ask students to take another minute or so to brainstorm responses to the question, “How can we argue against the myth that one vote doesn’t matter?
  7. Introduce the last point: that sometimes voting is difficult. Let students know that, for the most part, voting laws are one of the things that are determined at the state level. Explain that you’ll be checking the laws in your state to see how legislators have made voting easier or harder.
  8. Distribute the “Voting Rights and Restrictions” handout. Ask students to take a few minutes to review the glossary, and ask them to predict whether your state will have more “policies and practices that make it easier to register and vote” or “policies and practices that make it harder to register and vote.”
  9. With students, review Rock the Vote’s page on Voting in Your State. Using the Voting Rights and Restrictions handout, walk through the policies outlined for your state. Ask students to decide whether they think your state encourages or discourages its citizens from voting.
  10. Wrap up by reminding students that election laws are decided at the state level, so we have a pretty significant amount of power in electing the legislators who make voting easier or harder for people in our state. 

Alignment to CCSS

English Language Arts Standards | History/Social Studies | Grade 6-8
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.1
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.2

English Language Arts Standards | History/Social Studies | Grade 9-10
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.1
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.2
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.7

English Language Arts Standards | History/Social Studies | Grade 11-12
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.1
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.2
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.7
CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.11-12.9

Extension Activity

Take 10 Minutes to Register Future Voters Today

Do Something: My Voice, My Voter’s Guide

Voting in Your Town

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