Why Voting Matters

This lesson invites students to examine reasons why Americans may not vote, both in the past and in the present. Students will gain a deeper understanding of the struggle for voting rights and will explore why the ability to vote means so much to many Americans.


Ask students: “Do you know what will happen on November 6, 2018?”

Elicit or explain that even though there is no presidential election this year, the midterm elections will allow Americans to elect new senators, congressional representatives, and governors, along with many other state and local positions.

Ask students (assuming they are under 18):

  • As far as you know, do your parents or other family members plan to vote?

Ask students to move to one side of the room to indicate Yes (family members usually vote), to the opposite side of the room to indicate No (family members rarely vote), or to the middle to indicate Not Sure. If students are over 18, instead ask if they personally plan to vote.

Explain that in this lesson, students will explore reasons why Americans may or may not vote.


Voting Rights in the Past    

For this section, you will need to print out and cut up one sheet of cards for each group of 3-5 students.

Explain to students that there is a long history of conflict in the U.S. over who should be allowed to vote. Place students in groups of 3-5 and give each group a stack of cards. Some of the cards have dates on them; others have different groups of Americans. Invite groups to match the cards with the groups, creating a timeline of when they think different groups of Americans first gained the right to vote. Note: Some dates are approximate because different states granted rights at different times.

Once groups have a rough timeline, create a class timeline by writing dates in order on the board and asking groups to tape their cards under the year they chose. Ask groups to explain their reasoning, especially when there is disagreement between the groups.

Then point out any major discrepancies between student ideas and the historical record:

  • 1789: White men who own land. (About 6% of the population could vote.)
  • 1828: All white men above 21. (The laws requiring property ownership were changed at different times in different states from 1792-1856, but 1828 was the first presidential election in which a majority of white men could vote.)
  • 1870: Black men in the North. (The 15th Amendment grants voting rights to all races, but many Southern states immediately instituted Jim Crow laws with literacy requirements and poll taxes that were, in practice, applied only to black people.)
  • 1887: Native American men who give up their tribal citizenship. (Native Americans must move away from their tribe to become American citizens.)
  • 1920: White women above 21. (Women get the right to vote with the 19th Amendment, but black women still experience widespread discrimination preventing them from voting.)
  • 1924: All Native Americans. (Native Americans living on reservations become American citizens.)
  • 1943: Chinese-Americans. (Chinese immigrants are granted the right to become citizens.)
  • 1965: Black men and women in the South. (The Voting Rights Act mandates that Southern states’ voting practices have to be approved federally to prevent discrimination.)
  • 1971: Anyone above 18.
  • 1986: U.S. Military and other citizens living abroad.
  • 2018, in some states: Anyone ever convicted of a felony.  In 13 states, people convicted of  felony cannot vote without special permission. Even after their sentence and probation are completed, they must individually apply for a special pardon. Many states prohibit violent felons from ever voting no matter what.

Point out that each of these dates represent decades or more of struggle by this group of Americans to gain their right to vote. Ask students to discuss with a partner and then reflect in writing about this question: “Which of these dates for gaining the right to vote is most surprising or meaningful to me personally? Why?”

Voting Rights Today

Project this tweet or read it aloud:


Voting tweet

Ask students:

  • What is “voter suppression”?
  • What have you heard about voter suppression in Georgia and North Dakota?

If students have not heard much about these cases, invite them to search on their phones or skim the linked articles below for a few minutes with a partner before sharing. Elicit and explain the following key points:

North Dakota

(Source: NPR, “Many Native IDs Won't Be Accepted At North Dakota Polling Places”)

  • North Dakota is facing a tight Senate race between a Democratic incumbent and a Republican challenger.
  • On October 9, 2018, less than a month before the November 6 election, the Supreme Court upheld a new state voter ID law that disproportionately affects Native Americans living on reservations in North Dakota.
  • Under this new law, North Dakotans can’t vote unless their photo ID shows their residential address. Many people who live on reservations only have PO boxes, not residential addresses, and that no longer counts at the polls.
  • About 5,000 Native American voters do not have the necessary address identification. Native Americans also disproportionately voted for the Democrat in 2012, and she won her seat by fewer than 3,000 votes.


(Source: New York Times, “Showdown in Georgia Governor’s Race Reflects a Larger Fight Over Voting Rights”)

  • Georgia is facing a tight race for governor between a Republican and a Democrat.
  • The Republican candidate for governor currently has the position of Secretary of State, meaning he is responsible for running elections across the state. His office recently suspended the voter registrations of 53,000 new voters for name mismatches between their voter application and their official documents.
  • The Democratic candidate for governor is African-American. About 70 percent of the new voters whose registrations have been suspended are African-American.

Invite students to turn and talk with a partner: “How might these changes to voting rules in North Dakota and Georgia affect the results of the election?”



Why might Americans not vote?

Write on the board: “Why might Americans not vote?”

Ask students to summarize the reasons why people in North Dakota or Georgia might find it difficult to vote in the midterm election. Take notes on the board. (Reasons should include not having the right ID, voter applications being rejected at the last minute, and confusion about who will be allowed to vote.)

Then, ask students to discuss again with a partner and come up with even more reasons why many Americans might not be able to vote or might choose not to vote. Then have students share the reasons, taking more notes on the board. You may wish to share some or all of the following points to give students ideas:

  • In Oregon and Washington, all voting is by mail and every citizen is automatically registered to vote. Many states have same-day registration, allowing citizens to register and vote on Election Day. When these rules were put in place, voting rates increased. Why?
    (Source: Pew Research Center, "Early Voting Associated with Lower Turnout")
  • Some states have placed relatively more polling places in majority-white areas than in majority-black or Hispanic areas. How might this affect voting rates?
    (Source: New York Times, “Seven Ways Alabama Has Made It Harder to Vote")
  • Voter turnout is two to three times higher among people over 65 than among people aged 18-24. Voter turnout is also about double among the wealthy compared to the poor, and about double for those with graduate degrees compared to those with a high school diploma or less. Why might young people, poor people, or people with less education vote less often?
    (Source: Mic,“If Anyone Tells You Your Vote Doesn’t Matter, Show Them This”)
  • Swing states, where the race is very close, tend to have relatively high voter turnout, especially in presidential elections. Why might people not vote in states where the races aren’t close?
    (Source: Washington Post, "The states with the highest and lowest turnout in 2012, in 2 charts)

Finally, reflect together on the reasons listed so far. Some may be reasons of not being able to vote, while others may be reasons of choosing not to vote, such as “all politicians are the same” or “one vote doesn’t count.” Ask students to notice that there are different types of reasons on the board, and ask them to describe the difference.


  • Which reasons for not voting do you think are the most understandable or the most serious?
    Which reasons for not voting do you think affect working people or poor people the most?
  • Which reasons for not voting do you find the hardest to understand?
  • When you look back at the history of Americans organizing and fighting for voting rights, how do you feel about these reasons for not voting? 
  • What would need to change in this country in order for more Americans to be able to vote and want to vote?


Ask students to write or share in a circle:

  • Why did the ability to vote mean so much to many Americans in the past?
  • What do you wish you could tell Americans who choose not to vote today?