Young voters gear up for 2019 coordinated elections

On Nov. 5, many Coloradans will scurry to drop off their mail-in ballots or vote in person for state and municipal issues in coordinated elections. And, if national trends are any indication, young voters will come out in droves. According to a national study conducted by Tufts University, voters between the ages of 18 and 29 turned out to vote in the 2018 midterms in greater numbers than in previous years.

Coloradans had the second-highest voter turnout in the country in the 2018 midterms, after Minnesota. In El Paso County, nearly 70 percent of voters participated (the highest midterm turnout ever), but the most active age groups were over the age of 26, meaning youth voters weren’t largely represented. Understanding voting numbers and trends can be complex, and when taken out of context, turnout numbers alone can be deceptive.

For some youths, exercising the right to vote may be as sexy as wearing thrift store clothes, but “for a host of reasons, many of which turn on profoundly systemic factors in our electoral and political systems, youth have voted at lower rates than older people in every modern American election for decades,” the Tufts study says.

Myriad systemic inequities and disparities affect voter turnout, particularly in communities of color. Solving those inequalities will take methodical and systematic approaches: We can’t let up on creative ways to engage youths, to help them realize their power — especially in regard to issues that most affect them and their families, such as education, climate change and gun control.

Hillside neighborhood leader Faith Stone, 18, will be voting for the first time in November and can’t wait. “I’m sure I’ve registered at least three times,” she says.

[pullquote-1] Stone, along with other teens in her neighborhood, has been civically engaged for years through LEAD (Leaders Empowered Amazingly Determined), a local community-based organization that offers free meeting space and dinner to local youths. Stone’s vision, leadership and advocacy contributed to the revamping of basketball courts in Memorial Park, educational opportunities on the Helen Hunt Campus and citywide efforts to rebuild the Leon Young Pavilion in South Shooks Run Park. Stone is currently working with community-building organization Concrete Couch to clean up a plot of land that was used as a trash dump in the ’70s and ’80s.

“[Our generation] cares that the Earth is dying...” she says, adding, “I look up at the sky and notice, it isn’t as blue as it used to be.”

Stone credits the adults who engaged her in the voting process long before she could show up at the polls. Among them: her mother Victoria Stone, who mentors LEAD youths, and one of her high school teachers who encouraged her to register to vote at age 16. Stone believes more educational opportunities in high school, including mock voting stations and discussions of current ballot measures, as well as a general simplification of the voting process, would prepare more young voters for when Election Day actually comes.

Tswana Caine, 19, grew up in the Pikes Peak Park neighborhood and, with a group of other students, started a social awareness club in high school. “We started the club because we didn’t think that [our voice] was being paid attention to with a lot of current issues,” she says. Caine says club turnout was great, and attributes its success to making information more accessible. Caine, who voted for the first time in the 2018 midterms (and plans to vote this November), says, “I’m of the thought process, voting is not the best way to think about change, but as of right now it’s the only way to get [our] voice out there.” She believes as young voters see their votes have an impact on legislation, they will be more encouraged to vote.

The Millennial and Gen Z populations make up a significant portion of the U.S. voting population. The more learning opportunities high schools, colleges, community organizations and even local media can offer, the more confidence young voters will gain in their rights and their voices. As Stone and Caine have already demonstrated, young people don’t have to wait for the older adults around them to start to make changes.