Seniors at Oñate High School skim through the pages of their study guides as they play Jeopardy! to prepare for midterm exams in their "Principles of Democracy" class. It’s a state-required course for high school students to graduate.
Social Studies Department Chair David Nuñez has been teaching civics and government classes like Principles of Democracy for nearly 30 years. He said the class covers everything from the foundations of the Constitution and the three branches of government to political parties and special interest groups.
But to understand how government and democracy work, Nuñez said students need to experience them firsthand. Las Cruces Public Schools seniors got that chance in October at "Celebrating Democracy in Doña Ana County," an event marking New Mexico's only day to both register to vote and cast a ballot.
“There’s relevancy. There’s real life situation," Nuñez said. "I had my high school students among the other high school students: Centennial, Mayfield and Cruces all interacting with potential candidates that were running for office. They were talking to them. They were discussing issues with them. It was amazing to watch."
Some states have more civics education than others. A 2018 report from the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank, found 42 states and Washington D.C. require at least one course related to civics education. Each state mentions discussion of current events in its curriculum, yet just over half mention simulations of democratic processes.
That’s key for Nuñez. Along with discussing current events, he said his students simulate how Congress turns bills into laws, have taken field trips to the state capitol in Santa Fe and attend city council meetings.
In the class, 17-year-old senior Russell White said he knows it’s important for people to be civically engaged and vote but isn’t a fan of politics.
“Like first off, I just don’t think it’s really my place at the moment to be talking about the conversation and second off it’s just so much discourse around the topics of politics that gets thrown left and right and it just gets so jumbled up and I’m not really about all that," White said. "And I feel like a lot of people do get very sensitive about topics in politics and it’s almost as if you say something that somebody doesn’t agree with you’re immediately under fire and I’d rather not be in that kind of position.”
Another 17-year-old senior, Alyssa Garcia sees it differently. Garcia said since she can’t vote yet, she tries to engage her parents in the democratic process.
“Because my parents don’t really go out and vote just because of their job occupation and so I’m always telling them like ‘Hey, we should vote for this person' just because of their views and standpoints on certain areas that I actually like and so I’ll have them kind of vote for me. So I’m more than positive when I turn 18 I am going to go vote and just pick the right person that I feel would best represent both local and state," Garcia said.
Nuñez said the course is a building block for students at different levels of understanding. To further pinpoint how government impacts them, Nuñez said seniors discuss issues they care about like scholarships, financial aid, even curfews.
“You know they really like to talk about those things because those things are affecting them directly and not indirectly like a lot of other government policy so it makes for great discussion and it also adds to their understanding of why these policies or laws exist and where they come from," Nuñez said.
White said he thinks it benefits students like him who are apolitical to take the class.
“I still think it’s important for everybody to know what it is so that way whenever we do all get the chance to vote we know what we’re doing. We’re not just going off and voting and being like ‘Oh, I’m just going to vote for this person because I wanted to or I like the way they look.’ I think it’s really important for us to learn the things that we are learning now so that way we can be prepared for what we’re voting for or what we’re getting ourselves into," White said.
No matter their age, Nuñez said he wants students to know their civic virtues are just as important as their civil rights and that their voices matter at each level of government.
"I don’t want them to walk away feeling like we’re just a bunch of young kids that nobody wants to hear or that we’re powerless and that our political efficacy doesn’t matter," Nuñez said. "I want them to feel like they’re part of the process. They’re not a spectator, that they’re a participant in what goes on in our governmental system. I want them to feel like, you know that they played a part in something that they felt very strongly in.”
Participation among young voters increased during the 2018 midterms. A report from The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University estimates 31 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 turned out. That's up 10 percent from 2014.