Voter Voices: Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg on Trust and Youth Voice

Dina Atwa
November 7, 2016

Dr. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg is the Director of CIRCLE, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning & Engagement, which focuses on young people in the United States, especially those who are marginalized or disadvantaged in political life. CIRCLE’s scholarly research informs policy and practice for healthier youth development and a better democracy.

CIRCLE has an interactive guide to youth and the 2016 elections that you won’t want to miss. We spoke with Dr. Kawashima-Ginsberg in August.  Here’s an excerpt of our conversation.

Tell me about your work and how CIRCLE addresses voter turnout?

We use research as a tool to address voter turnout, the civic engagement gap and low participation in general.  Research can be used to improve the practice on the ground, as data points in civil litigations, or for advocates who will use data to make an argument.  We think these are all important strategies to expand access to civic engagement and voting. We strive to connect to the real world of youth engagement by engaging with partners, and when possible, young people to make sure that our research is relevant.

We also connect organizations and people with shared missions that work on youth civic engagement. The Teaching for Democracy Allianceis one example of that – the 2016 election and its negative campaigns have made teachers wonder how they should be talking about it.  In response, several national organizations in civic education, media, literacy, deliberation, voting, museum and research came together to pool resources for teachers on the Alliance website. Now teachers can access resources in one place.


Why does youth voter turnout matter?

Youth voter turnout is actually just part of the picture. Youth civic participation matters, and voting is just one indicator among many. That said, it is important, it gives us a snapshot of a long-term patterns of engagement or disengagement.

“We have to change the equation by strengthening the civic trust,
and also by bolstering civic education for all youth.”

When we think about voting, it matters because citizens need to have a voice and a tool to hold our elected leaders accountable while communicating our trust in them through our votes.  On the societal level, voting is important because our system of democracy is founded upon a contract we the people make with our leaders.  In order for citizens to vote, they have to trust that the system is fair, and if citizens stop participating, the democratic systems as we know it will crumble. 

For young people, the initial experience with the system of voting and electoral participation is really important because they are not just participating in an election – they are building a life-long habit of participation.  

If young people do not vote, it creates a vicious cycle where young people are considered “non-voters,” and elected leaders will continue to neglect youth voice because, often, elected leaders pay the most attention to people who vote for them.

We have to change the equation by strengthening the civic trust, and also by bolstering civic education for all youth.


What are some of the best ways you’ve seen to get young people to the polls?

There seems to be no single solution that works for everyone. Research shows that different young people respond to different strategies.

However, there are some cross-cutting effective principles: First, relationship is important.  Voters tend to respond more positively to outreach when they are contacted by someone they have a relationship with in some way – it can be staff from a local community organization, friends or family.  This is more influential than email, online or TV outreach, for instance. 

This is a short-term, episodic outreach strategy. We also need to change the relationship between young people and political systems. Young people in this generation may have especially hard time trusting the government because Congress has been in a long-term stalemate, and they are now watching a presidential campaign unlike any other.   

What I really think is that we need to change culture around what it means to participate, and what people think of duties. I think advocacy in elementary, middle and high schools can do a lot with informing about politics and really change the norms about civic participation.


Will you be voting on November 8?

I will. 

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