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outlook | Teachable moments before and on election day

Until COVID-19 caution led me to vote by mail in 2020, I had relished the usual experience of showing up in person to vote on Election Day. In the five decades I’ve voted in North Carolina, my precinct polling place has almost always been at a nearby public school.

After the onslaught of crass campaign ads and hyped fundraising mail, Election Day itself was a mixed emotional experience. From dawn to dusk, the day seemed particularly quiet, with only the soft murmur of citizens lining up at the polls to vote on who would have power in their local, state and national governments.

Several states mark the official federal voting day — the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November — as a holiday. Some reformers advocate making it a national holiday to encourage greater voter turnout. In North Carolina and elsewhere in recent years, many school districts have made Election Day a holiday for school children.

It’s hard to argue against district school boards and superintendents closing schools in response to parents’ safety concerns on a day that brings many strangers into their buildings. Voters increase the burden of traffic control and parking. Additionally, the intensity of the partisan controversy has alarmed school officials about the potential for altercations at the ballot box.

As prudent as the school closure is, it nevertheless sadly seems like a moment of educational opportunity lost to the distemper of contemporary America. Voting is a fundamental act of civic engagement, and schools are fundamental civic infrastructure for democracy. With polling stations in school gymnasiums and auditoriums, Election Day served as a crossroads between democracy and public schools.

Students could spot adults showing up to vote; they could see candidates’ signs and campaign workers handing out leaflets. Even in the shelter of the polling station, they might feel like something big is going on. For citizens, meanwhile, even a short visit to a school campus would signify its role as a community asset and hub.

Of course, education about elections and democracy does not only take place on election day. The campaigns themselves serve as proverbial teachable moments.

Schools can inform students of the practical steps for registering and voting. North Carolina law requires that every high school “make nomination forms available to its students and other persons eligible to register to vote.”

According to State Board of Elections data emailed to me, North Carolina has 285,403 active registered voters, ages 18, 19 and 20. Among them, 95,029 registered this year. The state’s current electorate totals 7.37 million registered voters.

North Carolina went from a single election day to an election period with November’s designated Tuesday as its conclusion. For 2022, October 14 is the usual voter registration deadline. Early voting runs from October 20 to November 5 – with same-day registration allowed. Mail-in ballots can be requested until November 1 and must be returned postmarked no later than Election Day, November 8. (For more information on registering and voting, go here.)

Without engaging in partisanship, schools can go beyond practical teaching about voting to help students gain experience in democratic customs and a taste for personal participation. Schools can sponsor debate clubs, hold mock elections to familiarize students with ballots, and invite local officials to classes.

History and civics lessons can guide students toward a better understanding of the nation’s long struggles for the right to vote. The original electorate was limited to white landowners. The reconstruction produced the 15e Amendment prohibiting denial of the right to vote on the basis of race. The suffragette movement led to the 19e Amendment prohibiting the denial of the right to vote on the basis of sex. The civil rights movement propelled the Voting Rights Act. The Vietnam War resulted in the 20e Amendment that brought 18, 19 and 20 year olds into the electorate.

These amendments did little to end the political battles over access to the ballot box that continue today on television, online, in legislatures and in court. In addition to nonpartisan education about the vote and its history, schools can offer students practice in civil discourse as well as how to navigate the online ecosystem to avoid shoals of misinformation.

On November 8, I plan to vote again in person at my designated constituency site. Wake County election officials recently moved my constituency site from a school to a church. Yet, with schools closed, I hope to meet newly eligible high school or college students there taking part in the most basic act of democratic citizenship.

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory serves on the Board of EducationNC and is Emeritus Professor of Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media.

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