“We Can’t Vote, But You Can!”

Reflections on a Middle School Voter Registration Drive

“Hello, ma’am! Are you registered to vote? Yes? Any recent changes? Address? Name? You can also change your political party.”

This became the unofficial script for my 8th grade civics students spending September afternoons in front of a Save-A-Lot grocery store in Del City, Oklahoma. But the story of “Del City Votes!” 8th grade voter registration drive begins months before the 2018/2019 school year even began. In May, one of my absolute favorite resources for all things social justice and civic engagement, Teaching Tolerance, announced its “Diverse Democracy Grants.” The goal of these grants was to “fund projects that will help students become empowered voting advocates in their communities.”

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As summer approached, I made a mental note to look into the possibility of applying for a grant on behalf of my four “Local and Global Citizenship” classes at Del Crest Middle School. June and July came and went, and I did not take further action. In early August, however, I revisited the possibility only to realize that I was within three weeks of the approval deadline. I completed the application anyway, and was wondrously surprised only two weeks later to receive notification that my project had been funded.

When the $750 check arrived, I immediately purchased two vinyl banners and enough t-shirts for each of my eighty-four students. The Oklahoma State Election Board was very helpful in providing an electronic voter list for the House and Senate district in our area, a large wall map of Oklahoma County precincts, and a thick stack of Oklahoma Voter Registration Applications. We were ready to launch “Del City Votes!” But first, we needed to educate ourselves on voting laws and the voter registration process in Oklahoma.

In the classroom, my students learned about age requirements, registration deadlines, primaries and runoffs, restrictions related to citizenship and felony charges, party affiliation changes, and identification numbers. We studied the registration applications, and quizzed each other with frequently asked questions. We made signs that said things like “You should vote!” “Register to vote today!” and “We can’t vote, but you can.” But it wasn’t until we were outside the classroom talking to registered and potentially registered voters that the real lessons began to emerge.

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We set the lofty goal of registering 200 new voters in Del City between September 6th and the registration deadline on October 12th. Our first day at Save-A-Lot was a reality check for all of us. Most people we spoke to said they were already registered and did not need to make changes to their registration. We realized quickly that there is a large gap between the percentage of people claiming to be registered and the percentage of people that actually vote. Our conclusion was that this could be the result of two problems: 1.) people are claiming to be registered when they are not and 2.) a lot of people are registered, but don’t actually vote.

In order to have the kind of honest interaction with people for which we prepared, we had to disprove multiple assumptions. When a table is set up in front of a store, the assumption is that someone is raising money. We had to verbally assure people, “No. We are not asking for money.” When young people are seen in front of a store, the assumption is that a team or a club is selling something like cookies or popcorn. No matter the answer to the question, “Are you registered to vote?” the inflection always had a tone of surprise as if answering with another question, “Why is a thirteen-year-old asking me about voting?”

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The greatest lesson we learned was that a sizable percentage of people have such significant barriers to voting and civic engagement that even an appeal from a young person, no matter how heartfelt, is insufficient to convince them of the importance of voter registration. My students had a difficult time understanding why someone eligible to vote would choose not to register when presented with a convenient opportunity. It simply had not occurred to us beforehand that some folks were intentionally avoiding voter registration out of a deep feeling of disenfranchisement.

No matter the answer to the question, “Are you registered to vote?” the inflection always had a tone of surprise as if answering with another question, “Why is a thirteen-year-old asking me about voting?”

It is one thing to know that the law does not permit convicted felons to register to vote for a period of time equal to the length of their original sentence. It is quite another thing to be face to face with someone who readily admits that post-incarceration survival is difficult enough without having to worry about luxuries like civic duty. It is rather easy for an 8th grader to say and believe, “Your voice matters,” and “Every vote counts.” But for the adult for whom the law has only functioned as a tool of society to keep them down, it can be difficult to hear, even from such sincere young people as my students.

In the end, we registered fifty-five new voters in Del City and had an absolute blast doing it! My students now have experiential knowledge not only of the importance of voting, but also of ways to effect civic change beyond the ballot. While we did not reach our goal of registering two hundred, we far exceeded our learning expectations, and we created memories that will be easily accessible in 2022 and 2023 when my students become eligible voters.

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