With less than one month until possibly the most historic election in America’s history, many say, voting organizations have been fervently attempting to inspire political activism in youth.
But it hasn’t been easy.
In the last presidential election, in 2004, only 45 percent of 18-24 year-olds in California voted. Only one out of every three Latinos age 18-24 years old cast their ballot, according to the website www.CIRCLE.org.
Hoping these numbers increase in the next election, Jose Orea, 18, and Joanna Flores, 17, members of United Students, an organization that encourages students to know their rights, spoke to Yolanda Roura’s lackluster Art class of 11th and 12th graders at Garfield High School back in August, emphasizing the value of registering and voting. Yet not even interactive skits could entice students to turn their heads toward the presenters.
When Orea asked the students if they wished to register to vote, not a single hand raised.
A presentation to Jeff Matsumura’s 11th grade English class at Roosevelt High School elicited the same lukewarm interest.
At Marshall High School, Walt Townes and Marco Ceglie, founders of Vote18, an organization that encourages youth to register and vote, gave an interactive presentation to Marcia Slaten’s much more lively AP Government class of 11th and 12th graders.
But for some, these engagements was short-lived.
When asked if she would continue discussing politics outside of the classroom, Roosevelt Junior Zaira Garcia, 16, said, “I’m not really interested in politics, but I would become more involved when our voices could be heard, not just the white people’s.”
It was almost automatic for many students to answer “No” when asked if they were interested in politics. When asked “Why?” many searched for an answer even they couldn’t come up with.
Gabriela Perez, 20, a graduate of Garfield High School, offered an explanation for the 66 percent of Latinos her age who do not vote, “It’s a shame that Latino youth aren’t getting involved, because policies do affect us. But most of my friends are first generation, so voting isn’t something they’re often exposed to.”
“I don’t know what’s going on,” a Roosevelt High student said to Orea during his presentation. “What if I vote and make a bad decision?
This lack of exposure, citizenship issues, illiteracy and limited transportation are the primary barriers separating youth from the voting booths, Flores said.
Until groups like United Students and Vote18 came along, many youth said no one was really interested in what they had to say. Expectations were low for those in their late teens and early 20s.
While the 18-24 year old age group has the lowest percentage of voters, Orea, Flores, Townes and Ceglie say the number has increased every election, promising statistics they can’t ignore.
And while some tried hard to feign disinterest, by the end of the Garfield High workshop, several students’ heads did start to perk up. Perhaps it was the opportunity to exchange completed voter registration forms for raffle tickets, but more than a dozen forms were handed out, completed and retuned.
“This is why we try to talk student to student to get rid of that communication barrier, Orea explained. “A man in a suit talking down to them just won’t know how to connect, and students wouldn’t listen.”
“So instead, we do classroom presentations at the high schools and go door-to-door. So far, we’ve registered close to 1,000 people in this community of color.”
At the end of the Marshall High workshop, voter registration forms were distributed to every single student and the Vote18 presenters walked them through the form question-by-question.
“60 percent of students don’t go on to a 4-year college, so this is our last real chance to inform them about political issues at this last level of social cohesion,” Townes said.
In addition to these efforts, several other issues seem to be encouraging youth to become more involved.
“This is going to be a historical election,” Perez said. “This is a real chance for the first Black president to be elected. We should be able to take advantage of that and be a part of it, not just read about it in a history book later.”
“We aren’t just about hip-hop and rap,” Orea said. “We’re politically involved, too. My friends and I debate about issues so we learn more.”
The issue that seems to be at the center of these debates is education. Because most youth are still in school or seeking higher education, education resonates as an issue that directly affects them.
“There is not enough money in schools,” Orea said. “East L.A. high schools are overcrowded and there hasn’t been a new high school in 80 years, until recently.”
Health care, a precious commodity, Flores said, is also a topic at the forefront of discussion.
“Everyone should have health care,” she said. “One time, my friend was really sick, but she didn’t have health care. It was just devastating to see her suffering through the pain! No one should have to wait in line to check their health.”
Immigration laws, school budget cuts and global warming all were topics that received multiple mentions.
And the candidate whom these youth believe will be able to produce the most change regarding these issues is Barack Obama, the Democratic Presidential Candidate.
“Obama’s policies are really progressive,” said Perez. “Regarding education, he supports the Dream Act and he has a history of working with people of color.”
“The key is to ask people to get involved, and Barack Obama has asked them to get involved,” Townes explained. “The students seem absolutely excited. They feel like they can relate to him rather than to other candidates.”
Obama has personally reached out to youth, appearing on MTV, Roosevelt Junior Joel Lujan said, and even spoke at Garfield High School back in 2007, according to Orea. The presidential candidate’s message of “change” seems to be resonating within the youth voting block.
“I like his speech, ‘Yes, We Can,’” Roosevelt Junior Anabel Ortega added. “It’s really cool that even though his people came from slavery, they were able to overcome that and he actually is a candidate. It sets an example for minorities.”
More than just an example, many minority groups, particularly Hispanics, seem to be getting involved in the political process.
“Though Hispanics vote significantly less than some ethnic groups, there has been a drastic increase,” explained Fran Lapides, a League of Women Voters of Los Angeles representative. “Part of this comes from the L.A. mayor [Antonio Villaraigosa.] With a Latino in office, the citizens are empowered. They see that they’re part of this political process and they’ll become more engaged.”
“I have all the faith in the world in our youth when others underestimate them simply because they’re largely marginalized,” Ceglie said. “They’re more enlightened and open-minded than older voters who often have special interests in mind. The world will be better off as soon as control transitions into these students’ hands.”
Whether it’s the candidates, voter organizations, or media hype, the next generation of voters seems to be inspired.
“Young people have the most power,” said Georgina Martinez of Roosevelt High. “We are the future.”