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Election 2020: How to Empower Young People

Author: Sanda Balaban, YVOTE Co-Founder

Can you tell us about what YVOTE does? Who do you work with?

YVote/Next Generation Politics works to actualize youth visions for the future by combatting low youth voting rates and equipping young people to influence civil society. We focus on helping youth, particularly those who have been most marginalized historically, connect passions and beliefs with how to build power, at and beyond the ballot box.  By bringing together young people across broad racial, socioeconomic, political, religious, gender, and sexual identity spectrums to analyze issues they care about–climate, criminal, gender, LGBTQ+, immigration, and racial justice–through the lens of “why vote,” we establish shared purpose and come to understand how issues are impacted by electoral politics, motivate youth to vote and influence others to do so, and utilize individual and collective power to create positive change. 

We aim to help today’s teens flex their civic muscles and, as part of the largest, most diverse, most progressive demographic in our country, become a force to be reckoned with by elected officials and civic leaders of all kinds. We help GenZ master the five A’s: 

  1. Awareness of issues of concern in our lives and communities
  2. Analysis of the issues and how we can create change
  3. Advocacy for the changes we want and need
  4. Agitation of peers to join us in rallying for change
  5. Accountability—of people in power and of ourselves–through voting and electoral engagement

We believe low voting rates are a barometer of broader forms of civic disconnect and evidence of young people feeling a lack of civic agency and investment in democracy, which we work to rectify. Through our workshops, campaigns, and knowledge building, we aim to strengthen a growing youth social movement by illuminating links with electoral politics and fostering skills and knowledge that support young people in being lifelong voters and change-makers. 

Three key things to know about us:

  • We target pre-voters, building an early motivational runway for voting (most voting initiatives start at the college level, which we thinks misses a critical window in civic identity formation)
  • We use an issue-based approach, connecting with prospective voters through the lens of the issues they care about most
  • We intentionally bring together the broadest cross-section we can–socioeconomically, racially, politically–in order to develop the inclusive, cross-partisan youth social movement we need.

We’re three weeks away from the election – what is the most pressing action you’re taking?

We’re taking a lot of pressing action! We have an #AutumnOfAction calendar from which youth can choose the forms of activism that work best for their interest and availability, including actions like texting immigrants in NYC to support them in understanding the options for how they can vote, calling young prospective voters in battleground states to ensure that they’re registered and ready to vote, facilitating peer-to-peer workshops on “why vote” for schools and community groups, and designing a “Don’t Be Late, Vote Early” PSA for young people that is now on top of taxi cabs across New York City through Election Day! 

Perhaps the most important action our young people are taking is the creation of youth voter guides–in written, infographic, and video form–to provide information that both motivates young voters and provides the nuts and bolts of various options to ensure that they can cast their ballot safely and effectively so that their vote and their voice can count.  Along with this, our young people are creating Issue Score Cards for climate, criminal, gender, LGBTQ+, immigration, and racial justice that break down the sub issues prospective voters should consider about any candidate–at federal, state, and local levels–before casting their vote. For example, for Gender Justice, what are candidates’ track records on gender-based violence, abortion rights, equal pay and the wage gap, gender-based discrimination, and  LGBTQ+ rights. For Immigration, where do candidates stand on DACA, Pathways to Citizenship, Impact of COVID-19 on Immigrants, and Refugee Status.  

Young voters tend to be motivated to vote because they’re passionate to create change in the issues they care about; unfortunately, we haven’t seen materials that help them translate those passions into understanding electoral politics so our youth were motivated to create them. Our hope is that these tools serve as a point of entry into the political process AND build young people’s capacity to stay involved well beyond any given election in holding electeds accountable for the issues and for supporting the youth agenda. 

What have been the trends around the youth vote over the past few years? 

Happily, there have been some really promising developments!  2014 had the lowest all time youth voter turnout (and voter turnout overall), with less than 20% of 18-29 year olds casting a ballot in the 2014 midterms (and just 14% of 18-19 year olds!).

Turnout increased in the 2018 midterms to 36%, which is a 79% increase from 2014 and the largest percentage point increase for any age group.  It’s very meaningful–and still well below what is needed to have a healthy democracy.

Early indicators–pre-pandemic–were that 2020 would be a record breaking year for youth voter turnout, but COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into that structurally. For example, in New York where we are based, if you don’t have a driver’s license or state ID–which many young people in NYC don’t have–you can’t register online, and in-person voter registration hasn’t been viable.  Close to half a million young New Yorkers do not have these IDs, and consequently, youth voter registration is down over 434,534 from the 2016 election. It’s very frustrating, but has made even more apparent why we need legislative reform around things like Automatic Voter Registration, Online Voter Registration, and Same Day Registration. We are part of several coalitions advocating for voting rights and youth voting rights.

What are some specific actions we can take with the young people in our lives to help educate and empower them during this election period?

Talking about the issues is a great way to start! We’ve never yet found a young person who isn’t passionate about one issue or another–but too often that doesn’t translate into knowing how they can create change around that issue.  For us, that’s at the heart of things–instilling young people with a sense of civic agency and efficacy, and equipping them with the tools and knowledge to be change makers.  This entails individual activism, collective activism, and electoral activism.

Sadly, because of the pandemic, many classrooms have not been able to conduct conversations in the ways they once did–conversations that students crave. Further, many teachers feel they don’t have time to discuss issues and current events because they have so much curriculum to cover. And even further, we’re living in such a polarized time that many teachers shy away from introducing anything “political.”  This is understandable but unfortunate, especially during such an eventful and unsettling time. We have a crisis in democracy in part because we have avoided teaching the hard truths of history as well as analyzing issues as they play out today and how they are impacted by government and electoral politics. Helping young people understand the collective power they possess as part of the largest, most diverse, most progressive generation in our country, and helping them thereby recognize the role they can play in creating political transformation, is very empowering during a time that can feel anything but. When young people see and understand the role they can play in transforming the political landscape, they are galvanized to do so. 

Ultimately, helping young people feel a sense of agency and internalize the belief that they can create positive change–in their own lives and more broadly–is a valuable goal for every educator and one that can help fortify the electorate of the future.

Sharing our youth voter guides and Issue Scorecards is another great way, they can be found at https://yvoteny.org/.

What tips do you have on how we can take a non-partisan approach when talking about issues that matter with young people?

We refer to our work with young people as being cross-partisan rather than non-partisan because we think people are, and are going to continue to be, partisan. We feel the key is understanding that there are multiple valid and valuable perspectives and points of view about every issue, and that it is essential to address and engage with these perspectives if we want to create inclusive civic solutions. As such, engaging in respectful, ongoing dialogue with people very different from ourselves, and grappling with key issues of our time that we may or may not see eye-to-eye on, is vital. It’s also important to us that this be in the service of deliberation and civil discourse, not debate. Our young people have co-created Community Agreements through which to ensure the creation and maintenance of what we refer to as “safe and courageous space” and we’ve found that young people are MUCH better at this kind of engagement than older people are. Young people have a huge appetite to understand the world, which entails interacting with people who have different views and values than their own–not to change their minds but to open their minds and hearts.  

Our goal is to get ALL young people to be informed, engaged voters, whether they vote for Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, The Green Party, or anything else, and to help them understand the ideologies that undergird different parties and platforms and their implications.  The key is making sure that they are choosing to cast a vote and doing so for reasons that align with their beliefs and values, whatever they might be.

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