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Election 2017: A High School Civics Class Weighs In On Importance Of Local Elections

Students at Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way talk about politics, the media and more, on Oct. 12, 2017.
Federal Way Public Schools
Students at Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way talk about politics, the media and more, on Oct. 12.

Ballots for the November election go out to registered voters Wednesday. People in communities across western Washington are deciding on mayors, city councils, school boards and other issues.

But if you look at voter turnout numbers, people tend to be less engaged during local election years.  KNKX visited a place where they’re trying to explain how local issues can be just as important as national ones: A high school civics class. 

When you ask the group of students about politics in Sue Bergman’s classroom at Todd Beamer High School in Federal Way,  you get a variety of responses.

Only a handful are 18 or will be by election day. About half of those students are already registered to vote. Bergman keeps a stack of voter registration forms at her desk in case a student wants one.

Some of them know the name of Federal Way’s mayor.

None of them answer when you ask who represents them in the U.S. House of Representatives.

And of course, all know the president’s name. That one’s a gimme. But it illustrate’s a point: People of all ages, not just teenagers, tend to be more engaged when it comes to national politics than they are with local politics.

Statewide voter turnout for the last three presidential elections was between 79 and 85 percent. Voter turnout for the local elections in 2013, 2009 and 2005, was between 45 and 55 percent.

But this year, the ballot is busy.

“It’s not a sleepy election,” Bergman says, after class. “These people are making decisions for us and if we want to have a better community, we need to become involved in that, and pay attention to who it is that we’re putting into the office.”

Here in Federal Way, there are three city council positions, two judgeships, the mayor’s seat, and a $450 million bond measure to rebuild and renovate several old schools.

Seattle is picking a new mayor, two city council members and a city attorney.

Tacoma will be choosing a new mayor and a new city council member, among other things. Up and down western Washington, a host of local questions will be answered in early November.

And it’s local officials who decide some big questions. They’re not just determining what kinds of schools our kids go to, or how much money we have to fight fires and repair potholes. They’re also making policy about drug injection sites, how immigrants are treated when they’re stopped in traffic, when and how police use force, and so much more.

Bergman was named a Civic Educator of 2017 by the Washington Legislature, in part for her efforts to get students more involved in government. She’s been at Beamer High since it opened 14 years ago, and she says lately, more students seem to be taking an interest in politics.

“We talk about the issues here in class and I think some of the students, they share with me that they go home and they talk with their families about it,” she said. “In that sense, maybe the students are instigating the conversations, and hopefully engaging their parents in the issues.”

Two more questions for these Beamer High students:

Who followed politics before the 2016 election?

A tepid response.

Who’s paying attention to politics now?

Many, many more.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.