This has been one of the most divisive elections in recent memory. We’ve seen headline after headline of attacks on our democratic intuitions and the integrity of our elections questioned without facts or even a shred of evidence. This has highlighted an important need to educate the next generation of voters, advocates, and leaders about how their own government and our elections work.
Civics education produces individuals who are more likely to volunteer in their community, register to vote, vote consistently, speak up for issues they care about, and be more productive members of society as a whole.
On the flip side, a lack of education and outreach to youth about government tends to create disengagement and a lack of understanding of the impact an individual can have not only in the selection of their elected officials, but on the issues impacting their lives. This has long ranging complications for our state’s future standing.
Since my time on Maine State Board of Education and throughout my 8 years in the state legislature, I’ve visited classrooms not just in my district, but statewide, to illustrate the legislative process and show how youth can make their voices heard. I even published a children’s book entitled, The Great Whoopie Pie Debate: A Kids’ Guide to the Maine Legislature, to make learning about government a little more interactive for young students.
It’s one the reasons I founded the Maine Democracy Project, an organization committed to promoting civics education and increasing youth voter registration statewide. Recently, I’ve partnered up CivXNow, a project of iCivics, to join the nation’s largest cross-partisan coalition to promote civic learning in education. I also serve on their state policy task force, working with colleagues across the country about how to bring civic projects and best practices to Maine.
Civics education is an often-overlooked responsibility of the Secretary of State’s office. We have a unique opportunity to build on Secretary Dunlap’s good work when it comes to student outreach and engagement and make it a greater priority…
Revamp Existing Student Engagement Programs
The student mock election needs to be revamped to ensure 100% school participation and increase the effectiveness of the overall experience. This could be done through the use of more digital experiences. We also heard that most schools can’t participate in the student mock election day festivities in Augusta. Finding alternative ways to engage schools and students will be critical to increasing the effectiveness of the program.
The 8th Grade Citizenship Award is a great way of inspiring confidence and encouraging civic involvement as students head off to high school. Problem is, not every school participates or puts forward a nominee. We need to change that. We need a proactive office to ensure every school participates and finds a deserving student to receive recognition. Also, the recipient should get a personalized message from the Secretary of State and the list of recipients should be sent to the media much like honor roll lists to recognize their achievement.
There is a program that was started from the Connecticut Democracy Center that we should bring to Maine. It’s called Kid Governor and it’s a civics based experiential scenario for 5th graders. They research the issues, run for ‘Kid Governor’, and vote for their favorite candidate. The individual then spends time in office helping schools with an issue important to them. This gets kids involved in politics in a safe way and helps them learn about how to select candidates based on issues. It takes what they are learning about government in the textbook to a whole new level. I have already made contact with the organization and have started the process to see about bringing this innovate civics education program to our state.
The Secretary of State’s office should have a strong partnership with the Maine Department of Education to start recognizing local schools and districts who are committed to educational excellence when it comes to civic learning and the establishment of high-quality civic education programs. Other states have started an innovative recognition program called Democracy Schools and we should bring this to Maine. As a former member of the Maine State Board of Education, this is in my wheelhouse and can easily build this out with Commissioner Makin.
High school Voter Registration Drive Competitions
Let’s find fun ways to empowering high school students to register their peers to vote. Let’s work with local districts, town clerks, and student councils to conduct voter registration competitions to see who can register the most students. The winning high school in each county could get a prize/recognition.
College Student Voting Rights
This past election, we had reports of confusion at many of our college campuses regarding college student voting rights. Many of you signed onto my letter to the Secretary of State’ office to clear it up. We need ongoing outreach to every college within the state of Maine to ensure our students understand their voting rights and encourage participation in our politics. This can be done with yearly visits, virtual or otherwise, speaking to the political groups on campuses and student organizers to help educate and spread the word.
Grants for State House Visits
While there are some 4th grade classes that do visit the state house and experience state government in person, most do not and cannot. Usually, the barriers are financial and/or logistical in nature. We should look at how we could provide grants for state house visits to schools that have a tough time pulling it off. Students who page in the House and Senate and visit the state house, end up pointing to those experiences later in life as impactful. We even have a few legislators serving in office who were former student pages. Talk about a good return on our investment!
Reaching Gen Z
As more and more Gen Z youth become of voting age, it’s critically important that the Secretary of State’s office be able to reach them. Currently, the office isn’t on Instagram which is more heavily used by this age bracket than Facebook and even Twitter. We need to create an Instagram for the Secretary of State’s office to keep current in reaching all possible Maine voters.
Have your own ideas to promote civics and student engagement at the Secretary of State’s office? Reach out!
Justin Chenette is serving his fourth term in the State Legislature, currently representing Saco, Old Orchard Beach, Hollis, Limington and Buxton in the Senate. He is the chair of the Government Oversight Committee, co-chair of the Democracy Reform Caucus, a member of the Environment and Natural Resources and Ethics Committees, and serves on the Maine Climate Council’s Coastal & Marine Working Group. He is also a Citizen Trade Policy Commissioner. Outside the Legislature, Justin is the owner of a digital marketing firm, president of the Maine Democracy Project, vice president of Saco Main Street, and author of “The Great Whoopie Pie Debate.” Follow updates at justinchenette.com.
Beyond the Headlines
Weekly Column featured in The Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier Newspaper by Rep. Justin Chenette of Saco