More youths will vote if given the chance to participate
Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D., Special to The Star, December 22, 1999
Earlier this year, Star columnist Robert Sigman wrote in "Kansans who hardly vote" that "youth are, relatively speaking, hardly voting." With voting in the 19- to 24-year-old age group at 32 percent last year, as Sigman points out, there is a major problem. Less than a third of our young people even bother to participate in our democratic form of government. Why is this? I say the reason is quite simple, and it leads to a simple set of solutions. Most young people do not feel they can bring about real changes in our society. That is the problem. The solution is leadership from adults and students to do whatever would give these young people hope.

Here are some simple policy changes that would help the upcoming generation -- those born from 1980 to now -- to feel the hope of bringing about changes in our world -- changes to solve real problems through real participation.

  Teen-age incremental voting   Give high school students, 14 through 17 years old, the right to incremental voting, at least in local and state elections. This could be done by giving 14-year-olds one-fifth of a vote, 15-year-olds two-fifths, 16-year-olds three-fifths and 17-year-old four-fifths.

Under such a voting policy, 18-year-olds, who already have a full vote, would have been voting throughout their high school years, establishing the habit through exercising real responsibility and authority.

Social studies classes could discuss upcoming issues, prior to election days. High schools could bus their students to the voting booths every election day.

  Kindergarten through 12th-grade student participation.   Give all K-12 students significant decision-making responsibility and authority to help govern their schools. By participating in various forms of democracy in their own minisociety -- their school -- young people will learn from experience that they can make a difference in their world.

From what students learn and how they learn, to how teachers are selected and evaluated and how money is spent on their behalf, students can be co-participants in decision-making in schools for these and other issues that affect them.

Along with teachers, administrators, parents and school board members, students can add their ideas in the context of exercising real power. This can happen through forum discussions, board representation, a presence in teachers-union meetings, direct voting on school issues and policies, and more. (These methods have been used in alternative schools for decades.)

If young people experience real responsibility and authority in their own minisocieties/schools, they will carry hope for doing the same into our larger society when they graduate into full adulthood. Responsibility and authority would need to increase with age.

These two policies can begin if students and adults work to change the current system of adult rule, which excludes young people from any significant decision-making in schools or society.

By replacing adult rule with active student participation in democratic processes, we will begin to give the next generation the hope that they can solve real problems and help to bring about a better future.

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