VoteRiders Works With Milwaukee Public Schools & League of Women Voters to Inspire Lifelong Voting

VoteRiders’ Digital Communications Coordinator speaks with Jennie Ekstein, Social Studies Curriculum Specialist at Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) about MPS’ student voter engagement efforts and partnership with VoteRiders. — November 30, 2023

Tell me about yourself and your role at Milwaukee Public Schools(MPS). 

I’m the K-12 Administrator for Social Studies Curriculum —- we call that a Social Studies Curriculum Specialist — so I’m the administrator in charge of the K-12 Social Studies curriculum. 

Empowering Lifelong Voters with VoteRiders & Milwaukee Public Schools
MPS students attend a voter registration event

When it comes to civic engagement and anything around civic engagement, that falls under my purview via the Wisconsin State Standards, which deals with kids being civically engaged. 

I’ve been in various roles here at the Central Office for about 10 years. Before that, I was an eighth-grade U.S. History teacher for 15 years. This is my 5th year as the MPS K-12 Social Studies Curriculum Specialist. 

What kind of voter engagement work is MPS doing? 

We work hand-in-hand with the League of Women Voters — they have several games and things that they do on-site at our voter registration events. As a school district, we also have Milwaukee Public Schools Civic Engagement Week during the last week of September. That week, all K-12 classrooms focus on an interdisciplinary set of activities and lessons. In the early grades, everything is centered around what it means to be a good citizen. Through middle school the trajectory is broadened to: what does it mean to make a difference in my community? And why is it important historically to have the right to vote? And then when students are in high school the focus becomes: what are some of the local issues we care about and how might we handle these issues? 

It shouldn’t be just that week — but that week is important because it includes MPS Voter Registration Day. The goal on this day is to try to hold as many voter registration events as possible in our high schools for our 18-year-olds. This year was a great year to start this because there wasn’t an election in November in Wisconsin, so we can register any student who’s going to be 18 before the primaries on February 20, 2024.

So, we had four very large voter registration events at the end of September. We had about 75 of our seniors register to vote during that week, which is really good — it’s up from what it had been before. Most of our voter registration events would maybe have about five students register, so we’re really trying to work on upping the ante with that. We’re working with the Milwaukee Bucks, they’re going to be helping us hype these voter registration events. During the January push for student voter registration, we’re going to have pep rallies and things like that. 

Voting is like a rite of passage — that’s what’s so cool about it.

I remember when I was 18, nobody said a thing to me about voting. It was almost more important that I signed up to be in the Army. Right after I got married, when I was 25, that was the first time I registered to vote, which was crazy, you know? These things are super, super, super important, but unless somebody tells you that it’s important, how would you know? 

How did MPS first connect with VoteRiders? 

Well, we were going to register all these 18-year-olds to vote. And then what? What’s the next step?

MPS students attend a voter registration event

The next step is being able to actually go to the polls and vote. Students need to have the appropriate identification in the state of Wisconsin, and securing acceptable ID will require several different things like possibly a Social Security card or birth certificate, proof of address, and all that other stuff that you have to have to get a state-issued ID. So, that’s why we connected with VoteRiders through the League of Women Voters in February 2023. 

Wisconsin is a strict voter ID state and only specific student IDs can be used to vote. What kind of challenges do students face when it comes to getting an ID? 

Getting an acceptable ID is THE biggest challenge that students face.

When I was in college, I didn’t know where my birth certificate was. Some of these kids might not even have one — they might have moved three or four times and their parents may not have brought it with them, or it got lost in a folder somewhere. Getting the underlying documents that you need to obtain an ID can be a challenge. 

What kind of work is MPS doing in partnership with VoteRiders to make sure students have what they need to cast a ballot? 

Every school has a person called a “Voter Champion,” a faculty member who’s in charge of the voter education process at their school. So, if a student comes to register to vote but doesn’t have an ID, then the Voter Champion will put them in touch with VoteRiders, and VoteRiders can help them get that ID

Is there anything else you want to share with young voters in Wisconsin? 

Voting is important. Everybody can have their own opinion and their own beliefs, but it’s important to teach kids the importance of democracy, that they do have a voice, that they have the power to cast a ballot and say, “This is what I want.”

I think that’s probably the most important thing for our kids to know because unless someone teaches you that, shows you that, or helps you vote, it can be overwhelming. 

Read More From VoteRiders