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Healthy and General

Wyandotte County Kansas youth voting program helps democracy

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OPINION AND COMMENTARY

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Kyla Esparza, Program Coordinator of Election Workers at the Wyandotte County Election Office and U.S. Election Assistance Commission Commissioner Ben Hovland

Kyla Esparza, Program Coordinator of Election Workers at the Wyandotte County Election Office and U.S. Election Assistance Commission Commissioner Ben Hovland

Increased polarization about the conduct of our elections has consequences. Namely, many Americans are losing faith in our democratic process. To reverse this trend, particularly for young people who may be new to the voting process or who are just considering registering to vote, civic education about election administration at the state and local levels, and the safeguards to ensure the security of these systems, remain key. Engaging young people in the election process is also one way to instill confidence and usher in a generation of voters with a better understanding of elections.

An outstanding example of this type of public engagement brought me to the Kansas City area last week to meet and congratulate the Wyandotte County Election Office team for its innovative Youth at the Booth program. This voter education effort recruits and trains high school students to serve as poll workers. The program’s success earned a 2021 Clearinghouse Award from my agency, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, in the category of Best Practices in Recruiting, Retaining and Training Poll Workers.

Alongside two additional programs recognized in this category, Wyandotte County seeks to engage young Americans to vote and be active participants in elections, which has long proved challenging. But positive trends emerged in the 2020 election cycle, including an increase in voter turnout and in the number of young Americans who volunteered to serve as poll workers amid a shortage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Continuing these trends by engaging more young Americans is especially important today because of the unrelenting, unsubstantiated and dishonest attacks on the integrity of our election system.

Coupled with ongoing polarization in Washington D.C., the results of a recent survey underscore the consequences of this atmosphere on young voters. Specifically, the fall 2021 Harvard Youth Poll found 52% of young Americans responded that American democracy is “in trouble” or “failing,” while only 7% described it as “healthy.” But that poll is a snapshot of youth sentiment, and efforts like those in Wyandotte County can make improvements.

As Wyandotte County demonstrates, involving young Americans early by encouraging them to engage in the country’s civic traditions provides one path to restoring confidence in the system. Indeed, anyone with similar misgivings should work the polls themselves. Seeing firsthand the chain of custody and security procedures in election administration may help relieve any concerns.

Survey results from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University confirm the benefits of civic engagement. Specifically, about 70% of student election judges learned “a great deal” about the voting process and nearly 100% of eligible respondents said they planned to vote in the 2020 election.

Wyandotte County’s Youth at the Booth serves as one model other state and local election offices can replicate to capture that energy and maintain the momentum of youth engagement from the 2020 election. Similar efforts can help fill critical roles while introducing a new generation to the importance of civic responsibility.

Election officials and younger Americans cannot do it alone. In these challenging times, we must all do more to support and strengthen our democracy. This can include registering to vote, serving as a poll worker, sharing information from trusted sources like official state and local election offices, or encouraging investment in the infrastructure of our democracy.

It was a privilege to meet with the staff of Wyandotte County’s Election Office and recognize their hard work in such challenging conditions. Their success provides hope that communities across the country can help restore faith in our democratic traditions.

Ben Hovland is U.S. Election Assistance Commissioner.

This story was originally published June 7, 2022 5:00 AM.