Teaching Engaged Citizenship: Voting Rights

Two women putting ballots in a ballot box
Casting ballots in the race for Fifth District, United States Congress.

LBME3-037a, Lane Brothers Commercial Photographers Photographic Collection, 1920-1976. Photographic Collection, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University Library.

Voting rights are an ongoing fight in the United States. Some present-day debates about voting rights are the continuation of centuries-long struggles, while others are a result of new technologies and crises in the United States.

For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic presented huge challenges for voting, just as it did for many processes in U.S. society. In Activity 1, students can explore how their state, district, or territory manages voting during the COVID-19 pandemic and how effective these procedures are in ensuring voting rights. Yet even outside the pandemic, there are problems with the ease and accessibility of voting. Many people who are legally allowed to vote do not do so because of a variety of reasons, such as long wait times at polling places, not being registered to vote, or not being able to travel to polling places on Election Day. Voting rights advocates have proposed various ways to fix these issues and increase voter turnout. Students can explore these proposals, their popularity, and their effectiveness in Activity 2.

Activity 1: Voting Rights in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Have students research their state, district, or territory’s policies regarding voting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Ensure that students use credible online sources. Questions to research include:

  • Can all voters get a mail-in ballot?

  • How do voters make sure they get a mail-in ballot?

  • How are mail-in ballots verified?

  • Are there in-person polling places?

  • What are the safety precautions at in-person polling places?

After students have researched these questions, have them reflect on the following questions:

  1. Which groups of people would have an easiest time voting and getting their votes counted?

  1. Which groups of people would have the hardest time voting and getting their votes counted?

  1. In general, are these COVID-19 voting rules helpful or harmful to voting rights?

  1. Of any rules that are helpful, which ones do you believe are the most important to preserve?

  1. Of any rules that are harmful, which ones do you believe are the most important to change? How do you think those rules should be changed?

To make this an action-oriented activity, have students contact the individuals who make election laws for their state, district, or territory to share their views on the election rules during the COVID-19 pandemic. The officials to contact will vary based on your location, but usually includes representatives in the state legislature, the secretary of state or commonwealth, and the governor. Students could write an email, letter, or script for a phone call expressing their views, making sure to specify which rules they believe should be preserved or changed. Students could even make templates for other people in their area to contact the same officials. They could circulate the templates via social media, email, or mail.

Activity 2: How to Improve Voter Turnout

Ask students to guess the percentage of eligible voters in their state, territory, county, or city who voted in the last election. They will most likely be surprised by how low the number is! As a class, brainstorm reasons that eligible voters would not vote. Explain to students that while voter apathy is a factor, many voting procedures also prevent or discourage people from voting.

Have students work individually or in small groups to research a proposed change to the election process that is intended to increase voter turnout. Options include:

  • Same-day voter registration

  • Automatic voter registration

  • Making election day a holiday

  • No-excuse early voting

  • Requiring a minimum numbers of polling places

  • No-excuse absentee voting

  • All-mail voting

Using credible online sources, students should research answers to the following questions:

  1. How does this proposal change the voting process?

  1. Where in the United States, if anywhere, is it currently in use?

  1. According to its supporters, how would it increase voter turnout? (One way to think of this question is: what barriers in the voting process does it remove?)

  1. What evidence is there for its effectiveness in increasing voter turnout? How strong is this evidence?

Have students create a brief video, infographic, or listicle to educate a general audience on this proposed change. Remind students to only include the most important information and to explain concepts that some people may not understand. As a follow-up activity, students could circulate their projects online to educate others in their school or larger community.

Additional Resources

Teaching Tolerance
Teaching Tolerance has a variety of lesson plans about voting rights for middle and high school audiences.

Civil Rights Teaching
Run by Teaching for Change, this website has a wealth of full lesson plans, readings, and activities about African-American voting rights.

Citizens, Not Spectators
The website of Citizens, Not Spectators has a high school lesson titled “Who Can Vote in the United States?”, about voting rights over time. For elementary and middle school audiences, there is a separate “Who Can Vote in the United States?” lesson plan, as well as one titled “Suffrage Amendments.” Additionally, the website has lesson plans for elementary through high school audiences about becoming an informed and active voter.

National Archives
The National Archives’ lesson plans include a lesson on the 19th Amendment and a lesson on the Voting Rights Act of 1965, both for middle/high school students.

The Archives’ DocsTeach program has activities about the 19th Amendment and the 26th Amendment, both for high school students.

iCivics has a wealth of lesson plans, games, and webquests about voting rights that can be accessed by searching “voting” on the website. iCivics requires a free registration in order to view materials.

Last updated: August 21, 2020