Last June, one of the teachers at my school organized a Zoom workshop in an effort to get high school students to register to vote in this year’s election. I expected the Zoom room to be overflowing with students, but only about 10 showed up. I couldn’t understand why more students didn’t care about voting with such an important election only months away.
I texted some of my friends afterwards to ask them why they didn’t come. They said it was because their vote didn’t matter; and at that moment, I didn’t have a response. I felt frustrated and angry. How could someone’s vote in a democratic country not matter?
So a friend and I began to research the voting system in America. How it worked, who had power, and whether or not my friends were right.
We spent the summer analyzing past elections, learning about local politics, the voting process, and the role of the Electoral College.
We found that many young people like my friends are misinformed about young people’s voting power. In fact, according to the Brookings Institution, more than half of the nation’s population are now members of the millennial generation or younger. The data show that people born after 1980 total 166 million as of July 2019, or 50.7% of the nation’s population.
So we designed a new workshop for this fall that focused on the dynamics of political power, the power of one’s vote, and how voting impacts our lives. Most of our information we found on local government websites. We scheduled Zoom calls with each other to share and compare information we gathered.
We didn’t want it to feel like another class at school, so we included videos and tried to make it short to maximize engagement. Teachers let us use their advisories to present our workshops, and as soon as school started we began presentations.
Turning Frustration Into Action
I turned the frustration I felt from the previous workshop into action by educating those around me. We got all seniors who are eligible to vote in November to register and we have begun pre-registering those just below the age of 18 for the upcoming 2021 elections.
One main aspect of the workshop is informing teens that elections are not just about voting for the president. A friend of mine told me they weren't going to vote for president this year because they would be picking between the lesser of two evils. But not voting also means you’re not voting for state and local politicians. These individuals often make decisions that affect our daily lives in more tangible ways than the president.
Congress writes laws on the federal level, which impact the entire country. Congress passed Obamacare, the COVID-19 relief packages, and relief for environmental disasters. The Senate also votes on Supreme Court members—which affects your access to abortion and contraception, health care, and voting.
Vote All the Way Down Ballot
But in addition to each state’s two senators in the U.S. Congress, each state also has senators who write and vote on local laws for the governor to pass. New York’s Senate had the power to pass a state version of the DREAM Act, which granted undocumented immigrants the right to tuiton assistance for college. They also passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which requires the state to cut 85% of its greenhouse emissions by 2050 and approve projects that offset the other 15%.
Next year in New York City, there are elections for mayor, city council, and borough presidents. These officials, along with your local state senator and assembly member, create laws that affect your day-to-day lives, too. The people in these powerful positions decide how much schools and public hospitals will be funded, if roads are repaved, what the city’s minimum wage should be, or if parks get remodeled.
Laws on the local level usually don’t take as long to get passed, making it easier to create new legislation. The borough president is responsible for going around the community and seeing what improvements can be made. Their recommendations have an influence on how and where millions of dollars of city money gets spent. Council members propose and vote on laws that then get passed on to the mayor to sign. They also negotiate the city budget with the mayor and monitor city agencies like the Department of Education and NYPD.
With the effects of the coronavirus pandemic felt throughout the city, the decisions made at the local level will be even more crucial in the coming year.
As citizens, we have the power to elect people who will listen to us. We need every politician at every level of government to listen to us, because it’s their job to represent all of our interests. That includes us young people, people of color, immigrants, the working class, low-income communities, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. No one can be left out. I am tired of seeing communities pushed aside.
Problems don’t get magically solved after the election. The fight for a more just world will continue. But with the power of our vote, we can continue to participate in our democracy. I am not yet old enough to vote, so I need those who can to take advantage of their right to go to the polls. I’ll see you all there next year.