Q&A with CERL’s Molly May on State Civic Education Requirements and Youth Voter Turnout

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CERL Research Assistant and Georgetown University undergraduate Molly May stands before her Senior Thesis presentation poster.

CERL Research Assistant and Georgetown University undergraduate Molly May recently completed her senior thesis, where she explored the nuances of civic education and its potential to impact youth civic engagement and voter turnout. In her study, Molly found no significant correlation between the strength of a state’s civic education requirements and its youth voter turnout. Instead, Molly found that state-wide political factors such as voting accessibility laws, election competitiveness, and party vote distribution have significant associations with rates of youth voter turnout. Molly’s research earned an Honorable Mention for the 2024 Margaret Hall Senior Thesis Award. 

CERL interviewed Molly about her research questions and findings. 

What prompted your interest in researching civic education and its impact on youth voter turnout?

I have always viewed voting as one of the most important expressions of personal voice that serves as a cornerstone of our democracy. But we know that not all Americans have equal access to this voice – young people tend to vote at much lower rates due to systemic barriers and disengagement, and centuries of gerrymandering and voter suppression tactics have targeted voting in communities of color. I began working with voter registration drives in high school, and I have continued this work at Georgetown. I currently serve as the Director of Operations for GU Votes, where I work to provide resources and information for all Hoyas to vote in federal and statewide elections.

As a Sociology major, I wanted to explore how an institution like public education could disrupt this cycle of low youth participation. So much education legislation is decided at the state and local levels, so this means that students across the country often have completely different education standards. I assumed that states with stronger civics requirements would be associated with higher levels of civic engagement, but my initial research showed me that that’s not necessarily the case. This prompted my thesis, where I wanted to take a closer look at nationwide civic education requirements and quantitatively analyze their effect on youth voter turnout. 

What conclusions did you draw about the correlation between state-mandated civic education and civic engagement rates?  Do states with more robust civic education requirements have higher rates of youth voter turnout?

Current research is pretty divided on this topic. Some research finds benefits of civic education, such as a predisposition for community service or a change in civic disposition, while other research claims that civic education doesn’t move the needle. However, most current research fails to consider statewide differences in educational requirements and voting laws. My research, where I consider how many credits of civics a state requires, whether or not the course includes a final exam, and what components go into the curriculum, yields null findings. That is to say, I find no relationship between the strength of a state’s civic education and youth voter turnout rates. 

However, I include a number of statewide political factors in my modeling, which I find do have significant associations with youth turnout. States with more accessible voting, more competitive elections, and higher proportions of Democratic voters all see significantly higher rates of youth voter turnout. This leads me to believe that making voting more accessible for young people – such as expanding early and absentee voting, and limiting discriminatory voter ID laws – could be a great way to increase youth civic participation. 

Are specific components of civic education associated with higher rates of youth voter turnout?  Is there a way to take an isolated look at civic education programs and youth voter turnout and compare/contrast from state to state?  

I looked at three specific components of civic education – the number of credits required, the presence of a final exam, and the inclusion of certain standards (such as covering the Constitution and Bill of Rights, or including information on state and local voting rules). Again, I found that none of these components were significantly associated with youth voting rates.

A large body of research, including much of the research being done here at CERL, points to community service, active learning, and hands-on engagement as really beneficial tools for meaningful civic education. Unfortunately, there is no easy way to quantify these aspects at the state level. I hope that future research will continue exploring these strategies as ways of impacting youth engagement. 

What is the relationship between other state-wide factors, such as voting laws, and voter turnout?

My research finds that voting laws are a very significant indicator of youth turnout. Election competitiveness and party distribution are as well, but voting laws can be altered much more rapidly. Research shows that while accessible voting is important for everyone, it is especially crucial for young people. Young voters are more likely to be moving around – attending college or starting careers – as well as lacking appropriate forms of ID needed in some states. Eleven years ago, the Supreme Court struck down a crucial component of the Voting Rights Act that required DOJ approval for changes to voting laws in areas with a history of racial discrimination. Since then, many states have been making it harder to vote, and this has had a massive impact on the ability of young people to share their political voice. 

Could you walk us through a high-level view of your statistical analysis/approach?  What were your key data sources and variables?   

I primarily relied on a number of regression models, which allowed me to control for multiple predictor variables, and my data came from four main sources. I measured the strength of civic education with a 2019 report from the Center for American Progress, and I made my own index that combined the number of civics credits, the presence of a final exam, and the number of civics standards included. To capture youth engagement, I used data from CIRCLE that measured turnout rates of 18-19-year-olds in the 2020 presidential election. I included voting accessibility by controlling for the Cost of Voting Index in 2020, a comprehensive index that includes voter registration restrictions, ID requirements, absentee voting procedures, and more. In order to capture both election competitiveness and party vote distribution, I used 2020 statewide turnout data from the American Presidency Project.

If you were to study youth voter turnout rates at the 2024 presidential election, what would enable you to get a better look at how state’s civic education requirements impact youth voter turnout?  You discuss the limitations to the Civic Education Strength Index. How could this be improved?  What else would you want to analyze in this next election?  

My research covers the COVID election of 2020, and this context must be carefully considered. The 2020 election saw record high turnout, and states across the country temporarily expanded access to the ballot. Aside from that, the BLM movement inspired young people across the country, political tensions were high, and many people were stuck at home consuming much more political content than usual. If I were to conduct this project again during the 2024 election, I would need updated data on statewide civics requirements – as many states have made great strides in their civics legislation over the past five years – as well as an updated understanding of voting policies in a post-COVID era. Additionally, I would love to include feelings of youth voter apathy, as many young people are not excited about a 2020 candidate rematch, and how these sentiments may be driving turnout (or a lack thereof). 

Lastly, I would love to work on improving my index which measures the strength of civic education. As I mentioned before, this index is not comprehensive because it doesn’t capture community service, active learning strategies, or hands-on engagement practices. As of now, this would be very hard to measure at a statewide level. My hope is that state and federal legislation are used to increase access to quality civic education as well as increase access to the ballot for all Americans.