The mid-term elections are about a month away, now. Typically, turnout for mid-terms is much lighter than in presidential election years. This year, the political climate is tense and polarized. That appears to be manifesting itself among younger voters with a new sense of interest. In looking at Washtenaw County, if newly registered young voters turn out, it could help determine outcomes in November.
Young voters have always been seen as a group that could potentially have an impact on the upcoming mid-term elections. By most measures, the current political climate is motivating many young people in Washtenaw County to register to vote. Now the question becomes: Will they take the next step and show up at the polls?
"I registered to vote this morning."
Eighteen year-old Hailey Golds is one of Washtenaw County’s newest potential voters. She chose to get registered on September 25th, National Voter Registration Day. The Eastern Michigan University freshman says she was part of a nationwide protest earlier this year in which students walked out of class demanding stricter gun laws. Dozens of students and citizens have been shot this year, many of which have died, including two adults on the campus of Central Michigan University.
"I think that was a big reason for myself and a lot of my friends to register to vote was to put progressive politicians in office who want to be the voice for teenagers. Maybe we voice our opinions and people tell us that we’re too young, but if we have this politician, who is really rooting for us and they’re representing us…if we can put them in office, then they can be our mouth piece on the national scale."
About 70,000 out of the 290,000 registered voters in Washtenaw County are between the ages of 18 and 30 years old. That’s what the county considers a young voter.
Ed Golembiewski is Director of Elections.
"In the August 2018 primary among voters 18-21, a 24% turnout and among those 22-30 about a 19% turnout. Which, believe it or not, it actually doubles, triples and maybe even quadruples the typical youth turnout in a primary election. So we are seeing younger voters engaged here earlier in the election cycle than we typically see them."
You can give some of that credit to the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area.
"We got 1,025 kids to register."
That’s Roddy Wares. She is the chair of the League’s voter registration program. Wares says, last December, the League launched a youth voter registration campaign and visited most of the high schools in Washtenaw County.
"And the county clerks came with us. Which you may not know the voting laws in Michigan, but you have to vote in person the first time you vote unless you have shown your ID to either a clerk or the Secretary of State. So the county clerks went with us to every single school and so that meant that they can stamp the forms of the kids who registered. And then, when they went away to college, they qualify for an absentee ballot. Which a lot of kids in the past have gone away, wanted to vote, couldn’t qualify, didn’t get to vote."
There also seems to be a greater awareness of issues among youngsters who are not quite eligible to vote. Seventeen year-old Sarah Lewis, who attends Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, is one of them.
"I can’t voice my opinion through voting, but I can help other people voice their opinion, which I think is so important."
Lewis says school shootings are an ongoing concern.
"With all the stuff that happened last year, all the walkouts, all the rallies, there’s a lot of frustration. A lot of students who went to the rallies or didn’t even go because they said, 'What does this matter? We’re just walking out of school, we’re not actually making any change, and we’re not doing anything by holding up a sign and yelling.' And so the big push, well, if you feel like you’re not doing anything, what you can do is vote. That’s how you can actually make a change. I feel that a lot of people feel that this is their opportunity to make the change."
College students in Washtenaw County have joined the effort to increase voter registration among their peers.
"Hi. Are you registered to vote?"
Sanyu Lockwago spends her free time at Eastern Michigan University’s Student Center informing other students about the November general election. Beyond signing the paperwork, Lockwago and the others in the Michigan Student Power Network plan to text the newly-registered and remind them to vote on Election Day.
"As somebody who is young, I know if somebody text’s me I’m going to read that probably before I’m going to read my e-mail. I’m going to be scrolling, reading my text messages, and that’s the best way to reach people."
According to the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, only 14% of their students on campus voted in the last mid-term election. As such, the Edward Ginsberg Center on campus is also trying to increase voter registration among students.
Twenty-four year-old Madison Mckenzie is helping with the effort and offers her theory on why voters between the ages of 22-30 years old vote less than those between 18-21 years of age.
"I think that people have gotten into a pattern of forgetting to vote or at least not prioritizing it. And so now you hear people, especially in Michigan, where there is no early voting, 'Oh yeah, I was going to vote yesterday and I just didn’t.'"
But, perhaps the lack of participation can be attributed to issues that take place earlier in life. Susan Santone is an author and an education instructor at the University of Michigan. She says students should be taught more about civic engagement at the grade school level. She wrote a book called “Reframing the Curriculum: Design for Social Justice and Sustainability.” We met on the central campus Diag, and Santone made the point that civic engagement lessons should be incorporated throughout the school year, not just during election season.
"It’s not about teaching kids what ideas to think or how to decide, it’s really about engaging them and looking at issues, looking at situations. Critical thinking, using evidence, evaluating bias. Those are skills that are useful today with the so-called fake news and the manipulation of information that we see. Those are skills that are the bedrock of civic engagement, being an informed citizen."
It's a concept we saw play out in a “Get Out the Vote” poster contest sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area. High school students were asked to create a poster that would encourage other young people to register to vote.
Morgan Knox from Ann Arbor’s Pioneer High School won second place with a poster featuring faceless people from a variety of backgrounds.
"I wanted people to relate to it more. So they can look at the characteristics of each person and they can kind of envision themselves as that person. So say you had curly black hair, and you look at the girl with curly black hair, you could kind of envision yourself as her."
Nan Elder helped organize the contest. She says 600 copies of various posters were printed and displayed across Washtenaw County. The League believes high school students are the best resource they have for the “Get Out the Vote” campaign.
"They speak to one another, they know each other’s language. That’s who has to talk to them. They have to speak to one another, persuade each other, and they are doing that."
Back at Eastern Michigan University, newly-registered voter Hailey Golds reflects on what she’s learned over the last few months about young voters.
"To be told that we’re the biggest voting demographic but the least likely to vote was shocking to say the least."
Knowing what she knows now, Golds challenges young people who are registered to actually get out and vote on November 6th.
"That was a huge wake-up call for people my age, that we could be making a difference, this difference we keep talking about that we want to make. This is our ticket to making the difference that needs to be made, especially for people our age and it’s kind of just here on a silver platter, just for us to come and take. And so many people aren’t taking the opportunity."
The Washtenaw County Elections Division reports that, just during the last two months, more than 3,000 new young voters have registered. And that number is expected to increase as we approach the October 9th registration deadline. But, it won’t be until the November 6th election that we find out if registration translates into participation.
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— Jorge Avellan is a reporter for 89.1 WEMU News. Contact him at 734.487.3363 or email him email@example.com