Teach This: Voter Registration in a Time of Pandemic and Protests

Use the video, articles, census data and original research in this discussion guide to talk with students about youth voter registration and turnout in this unprecedented election season.
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For nonprofit organizations working to register voters, 2020 has been a rollercoaster. The year started out strong, with record-breaking levels of voter enthusiasm and organizations reporting registration numbers that eclipsed those of 2016. But after COVID-19 began to spread in the United States, those numbers dropped precipitously through the spring and early summer. Now, however, organizations are reporting an uptick in registrations in the wake of this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

This discussion guide revolves around two texts: the June 2020 FiveThirtyEight article “Voter Registrations Are Way, Way Down During The Pandemic” and the August 2020 Washington Post video “How a Pandemic and Protests Affected Voter Registration.” Use these texts and the recommended supplemental resources to talk with students about the significance of voter registration efforts, the degree to which young people, particularly, may need to get involved this year and the ways they can take action in your state. 

A note on teaching through a pandemic:

We recognize that not all educators will be sharing physical or virtual space with students this fall. Because of that, we’ve tried to design these discussion guides in ways that can easily work across classes, whether you’re meeting face to face, in a virtual classroom or through another remote learning model. We’re so grateful to you and all the educators doing extraordinary work in these extraordinary times.

Here’s how you might start:

1. Check Your Students’ Previous Knowledge

Try asking if students know why voter registration is so important—and why it matters right now. You might begin by asking them to research and report on your own state’s voter registration requirements and deadlines. Or you might share that information with them.

Ask what students know about the demographics of voter registration and voter turnout. One question for reflection or discussion might be as simple as “When you hear the phrase ‘youth voter turnout,’ what are the first four words that come into your mind?”

Students may be surprised to learn that, nationally, eligible voters aged 18-24 aren’t just the age group least likely to turn out to vote—they’re also less likely to register. Only around 46 percent of Americans in that age group are registered to vote. (Students can learn more about state-by-state registration trends and practice their data-interpretation skills by investigating some of the tables provided from the U.S. Census Bureau, like the table “Reported Voting and Registration by Age, for States: November 2018.”)

Students may also be interested to learn that 2018 saw increases in voter turnout over 2014 across all demographics but that the greatest increase was in the number of young voters, aged 18-29, who showed up at the polls.

2. Read Together and Clarify Understanding

Read the article “Voter Registrations Are Way, Way Down During the Pandemic,” by Kaleigh Rogers and Nathaniel Rakich with graphics by Elena Mejia Lutz, which was published June 26, 2020 on FiveThirtyEight.

If students are working asynchronously, you may want to provide these questions to help them focus their learning as they read. If you’re meeting with students, try having them work individually, in pairs, in small groups or as a class to answer a few text-dependent questions. For example:

  • According to the article, before COVID-19, what was happening with voter registration?
  • What reason does the article give for these early 2020 trends?
  • The timing of the drop-off in registration numbers is one clue that COVID-19 might be the reason voter registration has decreased. What other possible reasons does the article propose?
  • Look at the collection of graphs titled “Voter Registration Dropped Dramatically During the Pandemic.” By May, which state had come closest to meeting its 2016 registration numbers? Which state was the furthest behind?
  • What demographic group does the article say will likely be most affected by drops in voter registration? Why does the article say this is the case?

3. Watch Together and Clarify Understanding

Watch the five-minute video “How a Pandemic and Protests Affected Voter Registration,” by Rhonda Colvin and Jorge Ribas, which was published by The Washington Post on August 11, 2020.

If students are working asynchronously, you may want to provide these questions to help them focus their learning as they watch. If you’re meeting with students, try having them work individually, in pairs or in a group to answer a few text-dependent questions. For example: 

  • When do first-time and young voters usually register?
  • According to Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, how are groups managing to register voters during the pandemic? In how many states is this happening? Why?
  • According to Carolyn DeWitt, president of Rock the Vote, why is voter registration up? How many voter registration applications does Rock the Vote plan to process this year? How many did they process in 2016?
  • Why does DeWitt think registration is up?
  • According to Maria Teresa Kumar, CEO of Voto Latino, how many people did the organization plan to register in June? How many people did they register? What were some of the demographics of these new voters?
  • What possible reason does Rock the Vote Volunteer Leader Jenna Zitomer give for the uptick in online registrations?
  • What is one challenge Kristen Clarke says newly registered voters might face?
  • What are a couple of challenges Jenna Zitomer identifies? 

4. Talk Together

The following questions can help students process their understanding of these texts and consider next steps for supporting youth voter registration during a pandemic. For remote learning, they can also work well as prompts for online discussion board threads or individual short writing assignments:

  • At the end of the video, Jenna Zitomer explains that when people learn more about unnecessary barriers to voting, they’re more likely to want to register to vote to change things. Do you believe this is true? Why or why not?
  • In the video, Kristen Clarke mentions poll watchers as a barrier that newly registered voters might face. How might poll watchers make it harder for first-time voters?
  • According to both texts, 40 states offer online registration. Does your state? Why do you think states would offer online registration? Why might they not offer online registration?
  • Check our state’s registration deadlines and requirements using this resource from Rock the Vote. Pick two other states—one nearby and one way across the country—and compare their requirements to ours. Do you think it’s easier or harder to vote in our state or region than in others? Why do you think that’s the case?
  • The FiveThirtyEight article suggests that young people are less likely to register and turn out to vote than usual because of the ways COVID-19 has restricted registration efforts. The Washington Post video suggests that young people are more likely to register and turn out to vote than usual because they’re more politically involved, and they’re more likely to register online. Do you think that 18-29-year-olds will be more or less likely to vote this year than in a typical election? Why?
  • What changes need to happen to increase the number of 18-29-year-olds who register and vote? Are there any ways we can help to make those changes happen? What? How?

For more resources for teaching about elections and voting, check out our Future Voters Project.

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