Children, Teens and Democracy: How States and State Legislators Can Help Connect Youth with Government

children participating in a mock election

Schools and families take the lead in teaching young people about democracy and governance, but state legislatures and state legislators can play a big role as well by encouraging real-world learning in their polling places, schools, communities, and state capitols.

States permit:

17-year-olds to vote in primary elections if the voter will turn 18 before the general election; Connecticut, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, Ohio, Vermont (as of November 2010) and Virginia have enacted laws or passed initiatives to allow this, according to NCSL data.

Pre-registration, allowing young people to register before turning 18 but disallowing voting until the age of 18 is reached.  At least a dozen states -- Alaska, California, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wyoming -- follow this model. 

Youth pollworkers. Most states allow 16 and 17 year-olds to serve at the polls under specific conditions. The National Association of Secretaries of State produced New Millennium Young Voters Report: State Practices in 2008 that details the list and much more about young voters.


State legislators can:

  • Participate in America’s Legislators Back to School Program sponsored by NCSL. The goal is to encourage all state legislators to visit school classrooms and share their experiences and perspective with students to bring civics to life. The program offers classroom resource materials, DVDs, tips for successful classroom visits, and lesson plans for various ages. In the last school year, approximately 1,200 state lawmakers participated.
  • Assist with We The People: Project Citizen, a curricular program developed by the Center for Civic Education, and sponsored by NCSL. Students learn how public policy is crafted through classroom-based lessons.
  • Encourage your state to support the YMCA’s Youth and Government (sometimes Youth in Government) programs. This program creates “Model Legislature” opportunities for students to learn by doing, from drafting bills to holding hearings and casting votes, often in states’ capitol buildings.
  • Start a Kids Voting USA affiliate in their state. Affiliates organize mock elections in schools, allowing children to vote. Nineteen states now participate, as outlined by the national organization.

Additional Resources

Engaging America's Youth through High School Voter Registration Programs, a December 2010 report by Project Vote.

Prepared December 2010.
For more information contact NCSL's elections team at 303-364-7700.