Civic Education: From the Classroom to the Polling Place

On National Voter Registration Day, our special guest author is Rhode Island Secretary of State Gregg M. Amore.

Preparing our next generation of civic leaders, engaged voters, and informed citizens starts in the classroom. In Rhode Island, young people are eligible to pre-register to vote as early as age sixteen. We know that when voters are engaged early, they’re more likely to vote consistently throughout their life. As a former educator, I feel it is essential that we lay the foundation to support students and young people, encouraging them to become civically engaged – as voters, advocates, community members, and even elected officials themselves. As we recognize National Voter Registration Month, we must think about how we set our next generation of voters up for success, including inspiring and encouraging them to register to vote.  

I was sworn in on January 3, 2023 as Rhode Island’s thirtieth Secretary of State, but my election as Secretary of State wasn’t my first step into politics. I first ran for elected office in 2012, serving the residents of my hometown of East Providence, Rhode Island as a State Representative for a decade. My role as a part-time legislator, coupled with my career as a civics and history teacher, afforded me the opportunity to advocate for my students both inside and outside of the school environment. 

Perhaps one of my proudest moments as a Representative was the passage of the Civic Literacy Act, a bill I sponsored that emphasizes “action civics,” requiring students to demonstrate proficiency in civics education through a project-based, immersive curriculum before high school graduation. Another bill I was proud to sponsor that recently became law in Rhode Island allows 17-year-olds who will turn eighteen by a general election to vote in the primary that determines the general election’s candidates. Better civic education as well as increased access to the ballot box are key to encouraging young people to become lifelong voters. 

My classroom and legislative experiences made clear to me what was needed in order to ensure that students have the tools they need to succeed as citizens and participants in civic life. There’s no doubt that the policy-making and legislative process can be intimidating, especially if you’ve never been invited to be part of the process before. As a teacher, I encouraged my students to take the concepts and lessons we learned in the classroom and apply them to the real world. In one of my last years in the House of Representatives, my East Providence High School students researched, discussed, and debated an issue of importance to them, compensation for individuals who had been wrongfully convicted, eventually helping to inform a bill that I was able to co-sponsor. That bill was signed into law by the governor – a great outcome. But another positive outcome was that my students got to see that the State House wasn’t only for legislators, and they could truly make a difference by being civically engaged. 

Now, as Secretary of State, I’ve strengthened our civic education and engagement team. Together, we’ve built a robust offering of programs designed to bring young people into the democratic process and encourage future civic engagement. Through classroom visits and lessons that explore the history of voting rights in America, a student liaison program that creates partnerships between local high schools and the Department of State, and an ongoing effort to bring back an immersive learning experience centered around State government, our office is focused on ensuring that students are introduced to civic education topics and feel connected to their government throughout their education. 

All of these programs are designed to teach students about the ways they can engage with their community, with a special emphasis on the importance of participating in our democratic processes. I have fond memories of bringing my two daughters with me to cast my ballot, instilling in them from a young age the value of public service and the importance of civic responsibilities, like voting. I believe that providing students with the opportunity to see democracy in action is one of the most effective ways we can encourage a new generation to register to vote and be active citizens. 

As much as I emphasize the importance of empowering students, I think it’s essential to remember that it’s never too late to get involved. Eligible voters of all ages may still find these processes confusing or feel unsure of how they work. Individuals who were formerly incarcerated may not know they have regained the right to vote. New citizens may not be sure where to go for guidance and resources. For that reason, the RI Department of State is continuously working to expand our civic engagement and education programming to new audiences. 

The process to register to vote in Rhode Island is easier than people might think. In Rhode Island, eligible voters can register to vote at the Division of Motor Vehicles, online through our website, or by paper form by mail or in person. It’s simple to register to vote – and it unlocks a whole new method of engaging with your community and government, and the opportunity to weigh in on decisions that affect your community at the local, state, and federal level. 

It is critically important that we equip our students with the tools they need to participate in those processes and demystify the inner workings of government. I firmly believe that today’s students, and future generations of students, want to be part of our democratic processes and shape our future – and we must give them the tools to do so. 

As we celebrate National Voter Registration Month, I encourage each and every eligible person who has not yet registered to vote to do so, and I encourage registered voters to ensure their voter registration information is current. The right to vote was not always guaranteed, and hundreds of years of progress have brought us to where we are today. Register to vote and exercise your right.  

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