When Kyla Esparza joined the Wyandotte County Election Office in 2016, she was assigned to start a youth program to encourage teens to become poll workers.
For two years, she couldn’t get any teachers involved.
“Most people don’t want to do it because they just don’t have time,” said Esparza, who until recently served as program coordinator for election workers. “They never call me back.”
That changed when she reached Sheyvette Dinkens, an educator at Wyandotte High School, who helped her brainstorm a plan to engage students.
The collaboration began with fewer than 10 students and eventually grew to at least 20. One particularly successful recruitment strategy was holding a mock election at the high school with actual voting equipment.
In 2022, the program won the U.S. Election Assistance Commission’s Clearinghouse Award for “best practices in recruiting, retaining, and training poll workers.”
Dinkens also used other techniques to engage students with elections, including a peer-to-peer ambassadors program, student-run candidate forum and assistance with transportation to polls.
It’s important to establish the habit of voting early, Dinkens said, and students remember hands-on experience more than textbooks or exams.
“We still have students who have graduated that still work the elections. We still have students that are still voting and trying to get their family members and community to vote,” she said. “We’ve had some students that came back as interns … so it’s really continuing.”
But even Dinkens’ efforts have fluctuated. She told The Beacon that the civic engagement activities she spearheaded gradually increased over the past four years, especially during the 2021-22 school year. But no activities have taken place yet this fall.
The youth poll worker program, which Esparza thought was poised to expand to another school, instead stalled when she left the election office several months ago and took a new job.
The situation exemplifies how fragile youth civic engagement efforts can be. Even after a nationwide 11-point increase in young people voting in 2020, fewer than half of 18- and 19-year-olds voted in Kansas and Missouri that year, compared to about 63% of the overall voting-age population. Turnout tends to be significantly lower for nonpresidential elections.
While both Missouri and Kansas require civic education in public schools, more intensive programs often rely on individual teachers’ initiative or community partnerships.
And some community organizations have recently run up against challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, safety concerns and new voting laws.
Barriers to students voting
When Oscar David Irenia was a student at Wyandotte High School, he didn’t feel encouraged to vote by his school or family.
“We didn’t have teachers back then telling us, ‘Hey, election is coming up, these are the candidates,’” he said. “… We didn’t have that until now. I think we’re seeing more … the teachers are more involved, students are more involved.”
Irenia, a 2017 high school graduate and current student at Fort Hays State University, got interested anyway in response to the 2016 election. He completed multiple political internships, then unsuccessfully ran for state representative in 2020.
Michael Rebne, a physical engineering teacher at Wyandotte High School who also serves on the Roeland Park City Council, said he enjoys seeing former students like Irenia become highly engaged in politics.
“Students have the energy and the will to go out and change their communities for the better, and it would be great if the two that I’m aware of that have recently gone out to do that were multiplied by 100 more,” he said.
There are a number of barriers to young people voting and getting involved. They may forget to register in time, not understand how political issues affect them or have trouble physically getting to their polling place.
Some groups that have partnered with schools to help overcome those barriers say recent legislation passed by states has put a damper on their registration efforts.
Janet Milkovich, president of the League of Women Voters of Johnson County, said the COVID-19 pandemic, security concerns and a new law in Kansas have made it more difficult to get into schools.
“If someone thinks that we are representing an election official, that’s a felony charge, so we’ve had to find different ways to engage voters,” Milkovich said.
The league has used alternatives, such as creating educational YouTube videos and distributing QR codes for the registration website, but Milkovich said she would like to return to the previous way of handling voter registration drives in schools — typically setting up in an auditorium or lunchroom and helping students register to vote.
In Missouri, League of Women Voters of Kansas City President Anne Calvert said the group is working to return to schools – including the Hickman Mills district, charter schools and some Catholic schools — after the COVID-19 pandemic.
A recent law change makes it harder for students to help register their peers because they would have to be 18 years old and register as a solicitor with the Missouri secretary of state.
“We would sometimes have juniors sit at the table with us because they weren’t old enough to register themselves but they could help get their older peers registered, but now they can’t,” Calvert said. “That would be illegal.”
The Kansas City branch of the NAACP has been informing Kansas City Public Schools students about new photo ID requirements in Missouri, said Sandra Jiles, chair of the organization’s political action committee. She doesn’t expect the new changes in law to pose as much of a barrier to young people as to older adults.
The NAACP visits all KCPS high schools twice annually to register students to vote, answer voting questions and sometimes provide nonpartisan information. This year, nearly 130 students registered, Jiles said.
Making it special for students to vote
During the COVID-19 lockdown, Christin LaMourie felt bad for students who were turning 18 with little opportunity for celebration.
A government teacher at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School, LaMourie started dropping off birthday bags with treats and a voter registration form at students’ houses, often accompanied by her own two children.
During spring 2020, she made about 60 deliveries to students in her classes. The following school year, she asked her principal to help fund some candy purchases and expanded the program schoolwide to 335 students. Often she made one or two drop-offs each day.
The program continues this year, but now students can receive the bags at school.
“Yeah, it was a little time consuming” during the pandemic, LaMourie said. “I just really thought people might appreciate the gesture, so it was more about making turning 18 special. And now it’s like, well, I really want them to register to vote and maybe if we make it special and put it right in front of them, they’re more likely to do it.”
In both Missouri and Kansas, students learn about government and civic participation in school.
Kansas requires state and U.S. government coursework — which some area districts told The Beacon includes information about voting — while Missouri students are supposed to learn about government throughout their social studies classes and must pass a civics exam to graduate.
But, as participation rates for young voters remain low, enthusiastic teachers and voting groups are constantly looking for ways to motivate students and make voting appealing.
Calvert, of the Kansas City League of Women Voters, said there’s a nationwide conversation about engaging young voters.
Her local group has sometimes led an interactive lesson for students that emphasizes the pitfalls of low voter turnout and uninformed voting. A percentage of students, meant to represent the percentage of people who vote, chooses vaguely described snacks for the whole class.
In Kansas City, Kansas, many of Dinkens’ efforts involved empowering students to inform and guide others, such as by helping peers register, sponsoring a school board candidate forum and informational website, and learning to help others navigate the voting process as poll workers.
“I think once kids got involved, I didn’t really have to recruit any kids to participate,” she said. “They kind of just shared the message and got other kids to be involved.”
Rebne said he particularly appreciated the ambassador program because students can be more comfortable with peers and more willing to share sensitive information.
“Students just respond to the other students,” he said.
But Rebne would like to see more systemic support for youth voting engagement.
He suggested that districts could develop a process for noting when students turn 18 and ensuring they have support to get registered and vote, and that schools could pay a teacher to lead voter engagement efforts in the same way some receive extra pay for coaching sports or sponsoring clubs.
“So much of this often falls on the shoulders of one or two motivated individuals,” he said. “When you’re short staffed, and so maybe you’ve lost that person that’s carried that load in the past, or maybe that person that’s carried that load in the past is trying to juggle other things … that just shows why it’s problematic to not have a systemwide approach around this.”
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