Youth Voter Registration in Cuyahoga County Varies Wildly by School District

click to enlarge EMANUEL WALLACE
Emanuel Wallace

The midterm elections in November are just around the corner, as too is the deadline to register to vote in them in Ohio (Oct. 9). While midterms always draw far fewer voters, this year's date with the ballot has drawn increased interest thanks both to the results of the 2016 election and efforts after the events of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, especially on the youth voter front.

As Cameron Kasky, a 17-year-old survivor of the Parkland shooting said at an anti-gun rally earlier this year, “Politicians: either represent the people or get out. Stand with us or beware, the voters are coming."

How do youth voter registrations fare across Cuyahoga County. It depends, and it depends on the school district.

We obtained the numbers of 17 and 18-year-olds registered to vote in 2017 from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and ran them against the enrollment data from the Ohio Department of Education. (The BOE data is for all seniors in a school district, which includes home schooled kids, as well as those attending private or out-of-district schools.)

Some schools, like Lakewood High, are doing exceptionally well. In 2017, there were 338 high-school seniors attending the school and 235 high school seniors in the Lakewood school district were registered to vote before graduation. That's 69.52 percent. The highest percentage in the county is in Shaker Heights, where 286 of the seniors in the district were registered compared to the school's 400 eligible voters in 2017, for a whopping 71.5 percent.

"Lakewood is a community that is politically minded and probably has been for a long time," Ron Lewis, an AP Government teacher at Lakewood High, tells Scene. "I grew up here and I think there’s a tradition of it."

Efforts from educators like Mr. Lewis and his colleague Don Murrey are a major factor in getting youth voters registered. Lewis serves as the liaison between the Board of Elections and Lakewood High, going as far as assisting the students by organizing voter registration drives at the school (the next batch will come October 3rd through 5th during lunch periods. Voter registration forms will be available on tables manned by students, encouraging their peers to get registered.

When educating about voter registration, Lewis has gone as far as to use the actual voter registration forms. "The point of the lesson is to show how easy it really is; a lot of people think they don’t have enough time to do it," he says. "When the students are done, I tell them that I can collect their forms and turn them in if they want."

Lewis notes that there are always kids that don’t want to register, and that’s their choice. No student is required to register to vote, but for those that are interested, Lewis wants to make the process as easy as possible.

Lakewood and Shaker Heights have truly set the bar in Cuyahoga County. Other populated suburbs like the Parma school district (which includes Seven Hills) boast above average numbers, with 354 registered youth voters in the district (633 total eligible youth voters attended a Parma district high school), for a total of 55.92 percent.

In the Berea-Midpark High district (which encompasses Berea, Middleburg Heights and Brook Park) there were only 128 high school seniors who registered in 2017; 445 seniors attended Berea-Midpark high. That's only 28.76 percent. During the 2017 primaries, only 30 percent of Berea area registered voters participated, so these numbers are comparable with the city as a whole.

Not every area is doing so well, unfortunately. Chagrin Falls and Chagrin Falls Township had a possible 220 eligible seniors at public high school, with only 23 registering in the district, faring the worst in the county at only 10.45 percent.

We reached out to see if any educators or administrators had any insight into the low participation numbers, but they didn't respond to requests for interviews.

The Pew Institute reports that many unregistered students feel they should not vote because they are insecure about their political knowledge. However their survey also found that only 17 percent of the unregistered population as a whole chose not to vote because they feel they are too uninformed about the candidates or issues to make good decisions, compared with more than twice that amount—39 percent—of registered voters who choose not to vote for that same reason.

Cleveland Metropolitan School District boasts the highest number of eligible voters in the county with 2,404 public high school students. Fortunately, 1,256 students in the district registered in 2017 for a total percentage of 52.25 percent.

There's an advantage for a community like Lakewood where two teachers are able to cover the bases for the entire eligible class in a suburb that's known for being politically active. For a bigger city like Cleveland, there are unique hurdles to overcome. The fact that over half of eligible CMSD seniors are registered to vote should be applauded.

Northeast Ohio Voter Advocates (NOVA) actively work to help register thousands of under-represented voters in food pantries, social service agencies, supermarkets, libraries, correctional facilities and schools. In their most recent report from 2016, they found that while there is a lower turnout for youth voters, there is a significantly greater turnout in younger age groups when they are registered in person by NOVA volunteers. NOVA also has data that seems to show that in-person registration gives better turnout results.

The numbers featured here are from 2017, an "off-year" in terms of voter registration. Now that we're in the heart of midterm season, it can be predicted that registration numbers are going to jump, given the fact students actually have something to vote for.

Justin Hons teaches American Government to juniors and seniors at Heights High, where 196 seniors in district registered in 2017 (there were 375 eligible seniors at the high school), for a percentage of 52.27. "We discuss political issues in our government and other social studies courses regularly," he tells Scene. "It is unofficially built into our curriculum."

Taking U.S. Government and passing the government exam is a graduation requirement for all Ohio schools, but in the last few years, the Ohio Department of Education has offered the end-of-course exams required by the state at the junior level instead of the senior level in order give students more time to pass the exam.

The neighboring county of Lorain is running into similar concerns. Steve Cawthon, the social studies department head at Lorain High School, told The Chronicle-Telegram, “The problem is most of them just aren’t in history courses by their senior year. We are willing to take the forms to the board for them, though, and we do the best that we can.”

Lewis agrees with Cawthorn, noting that most of the Lakewood High population is taking government class their junior year. "Accelerated students take their course during senior year. I’m worried that the other students aren’t going to be as likely to register if I don’t see them as seniors," he says.

State law allows students to miss classes in order to vote as an excused absence, and some schools, like Lakewood, won't be in session on election day. Lewis says that Lakewood has had close to 200 students participate as poll workers through the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. "It’s a fantastic opportunity for them to get involved and see how the system works, plus, the kids get paid, so they’re stoked."

Mr. Hons in Cleveland Heights also reports a more active push from his students for political involvement.

"Student interest in politics is at an all time high because of the election of Donald Trump, but I would not necessarily say that it is electoral-centric. It is more of a general political and social awareness that has increased, rather than one narrowly focused on elections," he says.

Lewis notes something similar happening over the last couple of years at Lakewood in particular. "Our kids have been more vocal about registration and political participation," he says. "We had a busload of kids, about 50, who went to Washington DC during the Parkland protests. The students want this. They want to be politically involved."

"From my vantage point I think it has been a combination of social media consumption including political issues and topics as well as the controversy surrounding the Trump administration," says Hons.

Today, on National Voter Registration Day, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter are featuring eye-catching graphics reminding people to register to vote, and clicking on today's Google Doodle sends you to an information page on how to register. For educators like Mr. Hons and Mr. Lewis, this is exactly the type of motivation the youth of today needs.

Lewis looks back on his educational career spanning 22 years in locations including Strongsville and Rocky River and can't help but feel a sense of pride. "In the last couple of years, at Lakewood in particular, I've never seen kids so vocal about registration and political participation."

Below you can find a chart showing voter registration percentages of the 30 major public high schools in Cuyahoga County for 2017. Keep in mind that numbers for students that attend private schools, charter schools or are homeschooled are not included in these numbers.

The last day to register to vote in the November elections is Oct. 9. Ohio offers online voter registration that can be done by clicking here.

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