Young adult voter turnout was much higher in this presidential election than the last one. But even those too young to cast a ballot still did their part for democracy this year. Students younger than 18 volunteered as poll workers, organized voter registration drives and hosted forums for candidates to discuss their platforms.
Their efforts show that “underage” does mean “uninformed” or “disengaged.”
“There are a lot of really large issues looming over my generation: climate change, systemic racism, gun violence, a pandemic, educational inequities and so much more. I think that's why we’ve seen a rise in youth involvement in the political process,” says Claire Gelillo, a 17-year-old student and activist. “The idea of sitting by when we have the capacity to use our voices and speak up against injustice—it’s kind of a question of, Why not?”
Traditionally, most poll workers—the people who welcome and assist voters at polling locations—are older than 60, according to the U.S. Election Assistance Committee. But that’s a cohort that’s especially vulnerable to COVID-19. So some poll worker groups made an extra effort to recruit younger people into their ranks for this election—including high school students, since most states allow people under age 18 to serve in that role.
And teenagers answered the call. They volunteered in record numbers, according to reports from several poll-worker organizations. If these newbies are anything like their more seasoned counterparts, they may be starting an enduring habit.
“I really want to keep doing this for a while,” Lucy Duckworth, a 17-year-old poll worker in Philadelphia, told NPR. “The cool thing about poll workers is that so many of them, they come back year after year. And it's really exciting to think that process can start with a new generation right now. That's been really inspiring for me.”
An election year splits a high school senior class between those students old enough to vote and those just shy of the requisite 18 years. This fall, Gelillo found herself on the too-young side of the divide. But that didn’t prevent her from doing civic engagement work tied to the election. She helped to lead an initiative to get every eligible high school senior in Montgomery County, Maryland, registered to vote.
The effort, called MoCo to 100, seemed extra important during the pandemic, Gelillo says, because classes and school activities were largely pushed online, disrupting normal in-person voter registration initiatives. Student organizers worked with school administrators to get permission to make announcements during virtual classes, recruited peer volunteers to text information to their friends, and asked leaders of student organizations to communicate with club members.
“Ultimately we found the most success when it was people talking to other people they actually knew,” Gelillo says. “People are more receptive to doing things when people they know tell them to.”
She estimates that MoCo to 100 helped register more than 3,000 people.
School Board Elections
Although presidential races naturally attract the most election attention, students are often more directly affected by local school board races. That’s one of the theories driving the work of Student Voice, a nonprofit that helps high school and college students participate in education-policy decisions.
Gabriella Staykova, a 17-year-old organizer with Student Voice who lives in Lexington, Kentucky, helped to pull together virtual town hall gatherings for school board candidates across her state. The goals included introducing students to their future elected officials and making sure that the adults running for office feel accountable to young people.
“I think there’s a really big obligation on school boards to reach out to their constituent communities—and for student feedback,” Staykova says.
School reopening was a big topic of concern among people who participated in the town halls, Staykova says. Questions about racial justice and equity also came up, with requests for relevant teacher training and changes to discipline policies that disproportionately affect students of certain races.
The pandemic and its effects on schools and extracurricular activities has increased interest in education policy among her peers, Staykova says: “For better or for worse, I do think a lot of students mobilized around education in Kentucky for the first time to make sure they would be able to play their fall sports.”
Staykova says the crisis also has highlighted the extent to which civics classes often neglect to teach students about local government and which entities—such as city councils, school boards and superintendents—are responsible for making which education decisions.
“Because it’s so local, it’s difficult to find information about what these varying groups have power over, and how they work,” she says. “Until this year, I did not know who my school board official was.”
Although Staykova was disappointed not to be eligible to vote this fall—and believes 16-year-olds should be able to vote in school board elections—she says she’s grateful to be able to do political organizing work around issues that are important to her.
“Voting is a once-every-election type of deal,” she says. “Being able to organize with this work is building capacity and power over the longer term.”