K-12 schools in Minnesota hold mock elections to teach kids how to vote

More than 300 schools across the state plan to host mock elections this coming Election Day.

A student goes up to a table and votes
Minnesota K-12 students in schools across Minnesota participate in the 2020 Students Voting election.
Courtesy YMCA Center for Youth Voice

Students Voting is a mock election statewide program that takes place at Minnesota K-12 schools where students are able to go through the entire election process, giving them the actual voters’ experience. 

The program was started in the 2000s but ended in 2010 due to the loss of leadership. In 2016, the initiative returned to schools for the presidential election and in 2018 the YMCA Center for Youth Voice, along with the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State, joined forces with one goal to help students understand the power of democracy. 

Amy Anderson is executive director of Center for Youth Voice and helps spearhead Students Voting, which happens every midterm election period and presidential election period establishing the importance of young people participating in civic engagement.

“There is really a lot of good research that shows why this is not just a fun thing to do on Election Day, but actually helps to really build habits of democracy and voting and that is what we are trying to do,” Anderson said.

The importance of young voters 

Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University reports that when young people are engaged politically earlier in life, they are more likely to continue that in the future. 

Aaron Shulow is a teacher at St. Paul Academy and Summit School and helps lead the mock elections process at the school.

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“We will invite all students in grades 9-12 to take a few moments out of their day, maybe on the way to lunch and pick up a ballot and vote to go through the process, just to try cultivate this civic engagement in hopes they continue it as an adult,” Shulow said. 

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Minnesota K-12 students in schools across Minnesota participate in the 2020 Students Voting election.
Courtesy YMCA Center for Youth Voice

Educating youth at an early age on why they should always show up to the polls is essential, despite data showing that there is obvious lack of interest: U.S. Census Bureau data shows that in the 2020 presidential election, voter turnout nationwide was the highest for people ages 65 to 74 at 76 percent, compared to the lowest being among people 18 to 24 at 51.4 percent. 

“It is not just voters who live with the consequences of votes, but it is everyone who is subject to policy decisions, so we really want to get kids invested in learning how the process happens and teach them to get in the habit,” Shulow said. 

Beyond politics, voting can impact communities in other ways: CIRCLE reports “research has shown that communities where young people vote, volunteer, help their neighbors and belong to groups or associations can be more prosperous and resilient places.”

“We suggest an approach to make it as authentic as possible” 

Amy Anderson said that when planning the mock election, she is interested in making an experience that is as authentic and close to the real voting experience as possible, such as having students register to be able to vote and having them vote at private voting booths and submit their own ballots. 

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Minnesota K-12 students in schools across Minnesota participate in the 2020 Students Voting election.
Courtesy YMCA Center for Youth Voice

“The research has shown that kids who participate in mock elections through kind of an authentic process like this are much more likely and confident to go and vote when they turn 18, and when they turn 18, they are eight times more likely to continue voting after that,” Anderson said.

Officials with Students Voting hope that this year they can reach participation numbers over 100,000 as they did in 2018 but did not in 2020 due to the pandemic school closures. It looks likely, as 305 schools with 149,391 students registered to participate on Election Day, according to Anderson.

Secretary of State Steve Simon's office pushes youth civic engagement and helps with the Students Voting initiative.

“Our philosophy is we want to get students thinking about themselves as voters before they are voters, so it is much more likely they vote during their first eligible election,” Simon said. 

Shulow at Saint Paul Academy and Summit Schools said he enjoys being a part of this initiative because he knows why programs like this can help youth become more engaged. 

“We really want to get kids invested and learn how the process happens and then to teach them about getting in the habit of participating, hoping that this experience translates to them being civically engaged for the rest of their lives,” Shulow said.