Student Well-Being

Casting Their First Ballots, Teen Voters Confront Pandemic’s Barriers

By Evie Blad — October 16, 2020 8 min read
Austin Teen Coalition Co-Founders Mainur Khan, left, and Zach Moser, right, both 17-year-old seniors at Round Rock High School in Round Rock, Texas, are unable to vote in this year’s presidential election but have energized their peers and have registered more than 100 voters.

Laura Hermosilla’s first time voting won’t be at all how she pictured it.

“I always wanted to vote in-person for the first time,” said Hermosilla, an 18-year-old high school senior from Tucson, Ariz., who will instead cast her vote through a mail-in ballot, joining millions of Americans who will shift the way they vote as the nation continues to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Hermosilla won’t stay home on Election Day. Instead, she plans to don two layers of face masks to volunteer as a poll worker, taking a spot that may have previously been occupied by an older, more medically at-risk volunteer.

She is part of a movement of young volunteers around the country who’ve committed to getting their peers to vote. While some of them are too young to vote themselves, they say the same pandemic that has made it more difficult to participate in the election this year has also made politics more personal for their classmates.

Growing youth-fueled political movements, like March for Our Lives and Black Lives Matter, combined with savvy social media strategies, have stirred hopes that the youngest voters will turn out in greater numbers for the 2020 presidential election, breaking years-long trends of relatively low participation among their age group.

But continued efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus have shut down many schools, eliminating a key venue for in-person registration and discussions about voting for many students. And concerns about the virus have led to new interest in voting by mail, which adds a challenge for newly engaged citizens who may already be daunted by electoral logistics.

Making Politics Personal

High school volunteers say those conditions are as motivating as they are challenging. They’ve seen firsthand how the decisions from elected leaders at all levels—ranging from school board members and county commissioners to members of Congress and the president—have affected their ability to return to their classrooms, to play sports, and to access coronavirus testing in their communities.

“Our peers seem to think politics is this crazy circus show,” said Mainur Khan, a high school senior from Round Rock, Texas. “They turn on the TV and hear people yelling all the time. But what we’ve experienced in the last nine months has shown how important it is to get out to the ballot box.”

Khan and his classmate, Zach Moser, both 17 and ineligible to vote this year, started an effort called Austin Teen Coalition shortly after their school switched to remote learning last spring.

About the Citizen Z Project

U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis now, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job.

To understand the role of education in preparing the next generation of citizens, Education Week began an award-winning series of articles, surveys, and projects in early 2018.

See other stories in the Citizen Z series here.

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After seeing their peers speculating on social media about the efficacy of face masks, the federal response to the virus, and whether their school would open its building before the summer break, the duo conducted a video interview with their school superintendent.

In the months since, they’ve interviewed mayors, congressional candidates, activists, and city council members, posting the videos online for their peers to watch. In the weekend before Texas’ Oct. 5 deadline, they held a drive-thru voter registration effort and helped 103 people fill out the paper forms. First in line: one of dozens of high school students.

“Even if only one person showed up, it would have been worth it to help that one person,” Moser said.

The Texas teens’ efforts are a little more spontaneous than larger, more-organized strategies that have also engaged teens around the country.

Researchers have found that a person’s likelihood of voting gets stronger with each election they participate in. So encouraging young people to vote isn’t just about this election, it’s about building a pattern of lifelong civic engagement.

“Voting is habit forming,” said Aaron Weinschenk, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. “Once you can get people on board, they keep doing it.”

Low Participation

United States voter participation rates lag behind many other countries’, and the youngest eligible citizens have historically participated at much lower levels than older generations.

Americans ages 18 to 29 were the only age group to increase turnout between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. But, at 46 percent, they still had a significantly lower turnout rate than older age groups, like the 45- to 64-year-olds, who had a 67 percent turnout rate.

Advocates say political campaigns often target their youth efforts to college campuses, where they can reach larger numbers of students more effectively. That can leave some young students without the support they say they need to register and to actually make it to the polls.

In the 2018 midterms, for example, overall voter participation surged compared to 2014 levels. But only 23 percent of eligible voters under the age of 20 cast a ballot, reported the Center for Information on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, also known as CIRCLE.

In a September analysis, the organization reported a growth in voter registration among 18- to 24-year-olds. But, in 21 of the 27 states with updated data, registration rates for 18- and 19-year-old voters lagged behind 2016 levels, found the analysis, which predated national Voter Registration Day efforts. And it’s not necessarily a lack of political interest that keeps young people from the polls. In surveys, teens have reported barriers like knowing when and how to register and how to identify their polling location.

The pandemic also has raised some new practical concerns. In a July youth survey by CIRCLE, about a quarter of participants said they didn’t know where to get information about mail-in voting.

That’s why educators’ efforts to build civic engagement shouldn’t focus narrowly on high-profile political issues and top-of-the-ticket races, said Weinschenk, the Wisconsin professor.

He cited a 2017 study, in which University of Virginia Professor John Holbein found that children who participated in a social-emotional learning program in 1992 were more likely to vote than their peers in a control group. That may be because they had more persistence or a greater sense of social responsibility, Weinschenk said.

Logistical Hurdles

In the shorter term, students also need practical advice about how to participate, said Crystal Carson, vice president of communications for When We All Vote, a nonpartisan organization founded by former first lady Michelle Obama. The group’s My School Votes campaign organized more than 20,000 students and teachers this year to help demystify voting for their peers—and sometimes for their parents, too.

“We know that young people are more likely to vote if they vote for the first time when they are 18,” Carson said. “If you see your parents voting, if you see it in school, if you hold mock elections in school, you are prepared to do that.”

The My School Votes campaign has felt the effects of coronavirus precautions. A massive outreach campaign centered on proms had to go virtual when schools across the country shut down in the spring. Organizers have canceled in-person registration drives and rallies to respect concerns about crowd sizes and social distancing. And student volunteers attending school remotely have offered to give voter registration pitches to their classes via Zoom, rather than having conversations in the hallways.

“Being online takes away that advantage of being in person,” said Hermosilla, the first-time voter in Arizona, who is also a My School Votes ambassador. “I don’t want to sound bad, but you aren’t able to pester them. You can’t remind them.”

Teens involved in the campaign have gotten creative. Students in the Miami chapter experimented with sending direct messages to classmates over apps like Instagram to encourage them to vote.

“Someone was like, ‘Guys, what are we on every single day?!’ We are on Instagram, we are on Tik Tok, we are on social media,” said Gabrielle Forbes, a senior from Miami Gardens who helped develop the strategy.

Florida, a significant state in the presidential race, also allows residents to preregister to vote at 16, which has become part of Forbes’ pitch.

“It takes five minutes. I will guide you through every step of the way,” she said. “I DM. I text. I call my teachers. I let everybody know.”

The social media strategy has become so successful that it’s been adopted by youth volunteers across the country, who have sent more than 130,000 messages to potential voters.

‘I Can Make a Difference’

Forbes, 17, got involved in the effort when she was trying to find ways to occupy herself at home during the early days of the pandemic. As a Black student, her motivation increased as she witnessed protests over racial injustice following the May death of Minneapolis man George Floyd at the hands of police.

“I realized that the work I’m doing now can help my community and I can make a difference, even at the age of 17,” she said.

Political scientists say such protest movements may help voters feel like they aren’t alone in their views on issues like race, policing, or gun laws, fueling their motivation to vote.

That was the aim of March for Our Lives, a group formed by students after 17 people died in a February 2018 shooting at their Parkland, Fla., high school.

At a massive rally in Washington a little more than a month after the shooting, thousands of high school students held protest signs. Many wore stickers that said the date they would turn 18 and become eligible to vote.

During the pandemic, March for Our Lives has worked with other organizations to hold virtual voter registration events and to ask participants to pledge to vote.

On the other end of the political spectrum, youth-targeted groups like Turning Point USA have sought to engage conservative teens through live events and internet messaging.

While political viewpoints have motivated some teen volunteers, many say they just want to see their generation participate, regardless of ideology.

In Texas, Khan and Moser said they hope the Austin Teen Coalition will help their peers find interest in local politics and issues like city planning that can affect their lives as much as hot-button national debates.

And, though they live in key states for the current presidential contest, Hermosilla and Forbes said they have their eyes set on a longer-term goal. They don’t just want to see high turnout during this unusual year in American politics; they want to see that turnout stay high for years to come as their newly engaged peers remain engaged.

“Every person we reach is a person that is going to be a lifelong voter, and that’s a change that wasn’t happening yesterday,” Forbes said. “This pandemic, as much bad as it’s caused, it gave people a lot of time to sit and reflect and think about how they can contribute.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 21, 2020 edition of Education Week as Casting Their First Ballots, Teen Voters Confront Pandemic’s Barriers

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