Informing and Engaging Our Youngest Voters to Get to the Polls to Help End Civic Deserts
By Daisha Williams, youth contributor & University of Dayton undergraduate | October 26, 2022
Gen-Z is a voting force like no other, being the most diverse, progressive, and inclusive generation yet. Gen-Z is an outspoken and politically active generation that has grown up amid numerous mass shootings, growing climate disasters, and increasing attacks on LGBTQ young people, rights to reproductive care, and other civil liberties. But one month out from midterm elections, knowing the impact this new generation could have in determining their results, will Gen Z show up to the polls? How can we make sure they do?
There are many initiatives taking place throughout the country by nonprofit, youth-led organizations, and other groups aiming to increase young adults’ civic participation. These organizations aim to show young adults that their voice is the most powerful tool they possess and that they can use it to create a nation they wish to see.
Rock the Vote, for instance, an organization founded in the 1990s in response to the censorship of rap music, partnered with MTV to promote the message “Censorship is Unamerican,” causing millions of youths to use their voice. They are still working hard to promote more engagement among younger voters. In 32 years, they have had 1,100 tech partners, registering over 14 million voters. Through their website, anyone can check their voter registration status, check voting rights laws by state, request an absentee ballot, become a poll worker or volunteer, donate, and sign up to teach Democracy Class, a curriculum that educates high school students on the importance of voting.
Another organization, Vote.org, has made its largest investment of at least $10 million in efforts to get voting-age people from 18-30 registered to vote and civically engaged. The goal is to get one million voters registered by November 8th. The group plans to put this work into action through “meeting people where they already are,” says Andrea Hailey, the CEO of Vote.org. The group has reached out to many influencers and have partnered with tech companies such as Twitter, TikTok, and YouTube to get the attention of the youth in hope to give them the voting information they need. One group they have partnered with is The League of Women Voters (LWV). LWV is a grassroots organization that works to protect and expand voting rights to ensure representation in democracy. During the spring, LWV members across the country hosted nearly 900 registration events ahead of midterms, registering over 22,000 youth at high schools, community colleges, rallies, festivals, youth centers, and more. These are just some of many promising efforts taking place to increase participation among youth in upcoming elections across the country.
The goal of many organizations is to not only get the registered voters numbers up, but also to make sure that those who showed up to the polls in 2020, making historic numbers as the highest voter turnout in over a century, come back out to the polls.
Earlier this summer, a New York Times/Sienna College Poll found that 48% of respondents between 18-29 said that they felt voting did not make a difference in how their government operates. During my time as a student at the University of Dayton, I have not only expanded my knowledge in education as a teacher in training but also my awareness of how politics affect our daily lives, what we as college students can do to ensure our voices are heard, and how we can do our civic service by ensuring students are registered and know the process of voting. Through my position as Community Service Chair of the organization Black Action Through Unity (BATU), I have hosted events at local high schools getting 18 year-old seniors registered to vote and hosted tabling hours on campus getting freshmen registered and informed on the process of voting, the candidates on their Ohio ballot, and the importance of their vote. Many students have told me that they believe their vote doesn’t matter, that because of the Electoral College system their input is trumped. But I could not push back on this more, and if anything, it has shown me just how civic education for young Americans is so important, as well as the work done by many college students across the nation like me to organize our peers around voting participation. Voter participation in our nation is needed for all demographics, and the youngest of our voters are not exempt.
Critically, it’s not just big nonprofits and corporations working to promote voter education and registration – it’s also the youth themselves. For example, the Ohio Students Association (OSA), a grassroot organization in Ohio led by students, is bringing together youth across the state to engage, empower, and fight for a better future. Founded in 2012, OSA has shown many young people that all students can make a difference. It does not have to be major corporations or national organizations, it can be the same students at your local post-secondary institution.
All of this work helps to ensure that civic deserts become a thing of the past. “Civic deserts” is a term that refers to places where there are little to no opportunities for people to meet, discuss issues, or address problems. Nationally, 60% of all rural youth live in civic deserts along with 30% of urban and suburban young people. In fact, 70% of 12th graders say they have never written a letter to give an opinion or solve a problem, and 30% say they have never taken part in a debate. We cannot wait to introduce students to their civic duty until just before or after they are walking across the stage to graduate. It is when we incorporate it into their classwork and show how it is incorporated into their everyday lives where we build students who make their voices heard lifelong in our democracy.
The initiatives and actions taking place nationally to see more youth show up to the polls couldn’t be at a better time. As politicians get ready for the midterm elections and many states, including Ohio, face gubernatorial elections, we must do our part to get our young peers to show up to their polling place, especially those who are impacted by legislation the most, seeing that we have the least representation and will live under the legislation the longest. It is not just corporations that can make a difference but especially our grassroots organizations and college students seeing to it that the work is done. It is more than only registering to vote; we must educate our youth before their entrance to their precinct. Whether it’s Rock the Vote’s Democracy Class or organic lesson plans where students practice the process as they learn about the history of democracy in our nation, we must educate, promote, and empower students to use their voice, especially leading up to our elections this year.
A new resource created by youth for youth in partnership with KidsVoting Ohio that can help start these critical conversations is the 2022 Ohio Midterm Election Guide. You can make a difference by sharing it with the young people you know heading to the polls for the first time. Join me in sharing it widely to young people you know. We can all make a difference in helping ensure the voices of our young people are represented in our elections and our democracy.