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Dione Ramos didn’t think her first time voting would be special.
She certainly didn’t expect a live band, a DJ blaring Ariana Grande and Camila Cabello, free tacos and recognition of first-time voters. But that’s what Vote Mob provided on Oct. 26. The annual celebration of voting is organized by local youth-led civic engagement group Root the Power.
“It’s much more special than I thought it was going to be,” Ramos said. “Having these things, being aware of these things — it’s like our golden ticket to get our voices heard.”
Youth are some of the least represented in election turnout and among registered voters.
“Mostly young people don’t participate because they don’t have familiarity with the system,” said Alexandra Middlewood, assistant professor of political science at Wichita State University. “It’s hard to figure out how to register to vote, where you need to go, are you going to request a mail-in ballot or not.”
Around Wichita, youth are working to get their peers engaged in local elections — from making voting fun to educating students about election engagement — and considering how to change laws so more teens can vote.
‘It’s going to be a party’
Through chatter about painted nails and the pros of attending Wichita State, Tiayla Maholmes called out a question about the task at hand.
“Ok, so what’s the script?”
Maholmes, an intern with Root the Power and sophomore at Butler Community College, was door knocking to get the word out about an upcoming City Council and school board candidate forum.
“Just letting them know this Saturday, we’re going to have a meet-and-greet with our local candidates,” said Jondalyn Marshall, director of administration for Root the Power. “Free hot dogs, free food.”
“It’s going to be a party,” Alondra Lerma, another intern, chimed in.
“Party” is a key word for Root the Power, which was formed in 2016 to increase civic engagement and voter turnout among youth, particularly in Wichita’s North End, according to founder Armando Minjarez. The group is led by Marshall but is primarily made up of high school and college interns.
In addition to Vote Mob, this year the organization hosted City Council and school board candidate meet-and-greets in Districts 1 and 3 and passed out voter registration information at the Juneteenth parade, the Women’s March and a climate rally.
Last year, Root the Power worked alongside several organizations to bring early voting polling locations to Wichita State University and Newman University.
The organization also focuses on engaging populations with historically low voter turnout. Last year, the group registered 75 people to vote in the 67214 ZIP code, one of the poorest in Wichita, Marshall said.
“We’re trying to target the specific districts that tend not to have a high voting rate,” Maholmes said. “I know when I personally had to sign people up, there were a lot of people that I got signed up and motivated.”
Middlewood said explicitly targeting young people — such as through on-campus polling locations or Vote Mobs — is a good place to start to increase their turnout at elections. And Carole Neal, voter service chair for the League of Women Voters Wichita-Metro, credited at least some of the increased voter turnout in 2020 to youth and Root the Power’s efforts.
Engagement through education
Put face-to-face with seven people hoping to decide the kind of education they should be receiving, Ryan Smith, Gracie Lamb and Eric Berlin dived in with their first hardball question: Why had the candidates essentially split into two tickets in what’s supposed to be a nonpartisan election?
The Maize South High School seniors — serving as moderators as part of their Advanced Placement Government class student-led school board candidate forum — pulled no punches, questioning the Maize Board of Education candidates on everything from critical race theory to low teacher morale to budget deficits during the Oct. 20 event.
“I would’ve loved to have had the chance to ask them to clarify some of the things,” Lamb said. “In speech and debate, we have a thing called cross-examining, and I wasn’t able to do that here, but next time, we should be able to have them elaborate a little more.”
Few of the seniors in the AP Government class are old enough to vote, and most of the audience members at the forum were parents or other adults, although some of the school’s broadcasting students produced a livestream of the event.
But for the students, hosting the candidate forum and producing a voter guide afterward added excitement to the election while allowing them to perform a civic service, Berlin said.
“It was important that we get a clear view out to the voters who can actually vote,” he said. “Even though we’re really involved this year, I’ve got little brothers who go to this school, and I want this school district to be the best it can be for them and generations to come.”
Teens struggle with connecting to elections
This year, students have been very interested in the election, especially for an “off-year” ballot, said Matt Kerr, the AP Government teacher at Maize South.
“The kids in this class, they didn’t have a choice to cover (any other election), but as it worked out, it’s been an exciting one to cover,” he said.
“Next year, we’ll have House of Representatives and other state elections that might spike interest more, but I think because of COVID, it seems like these local elections have been more publicized than I’d ever seen,” Kerr added.
Nathan McAlister, a longtime social studies teacher who now oversees the humanities program for the Kansas State Department of Education, said “the easiest answer” to why teenagers don’t usually pay attention to local elections is simple — they’re busy.
But it also has to do with getting students to see a personal connection to elections, which can be more difficult with local elections, he said.
In Kansas, most high school social studies classes focus on the federal government — think the Bill of Rights, the Civil War and presidential elections — while classes on local history and government usually come in lower grades.
“It’s incredibly tough the lower you get in age for (students) to see any connection to the election right now,” McAlister said. “But as they get older and get closer to voting age, obviously, it gets a little more personal and more real for them, because in a few years, they may be voting.”
That’s why the most successful election engagement lessons and activities, like the Maize South school board forum, focus on letting students take charge and find their own personal connections to elections.
“I think you are starting to see more awareness from this generation that some of the choices that are made by local government officials affect them,” Kerr said. “You still see a lack of interest by most kids, but you’re definitely seeing more kids who understand and pay attention to local elections. That’s a positive thing.”
What if more high school students could vote?
For all their efforts to get more Wichita-area high school students involved in this year’s local elections, the students on the City of Wichita Mayor’s Youth Council know there’s so much more that could be done.
Since the start of the school year, members of the group have registered students to vote at high schools across the city, helped others apply for advance mail-in ballots and even hosted a forum with five of the six Wichita City Council candidates.
Ultimately, though, teenage election engagement efforts usually target a small fraction of high school students — seniors who happen to turn 18 years old in the first couple of months of the school year.
But what if more teenagers could vote?
For the past several years, the Mayor’s Youth Council has picked Vote16USA — a national initiative to lower the voting age to 16 for local elections — as a project, said Reeya Kamath, youth mayor of the organization.
In Kansas, where the Wichita MYC has collaborated with similar groups in Olathe and Topeka, efforts have focused on lowering the voting age for school board races. The youth organizations see that as an easier sell than advocating for a lower voting age for all local races. Any change to the voting age requires a change in state law.
It used to be 21 to vote
Lowering the voting age isn’t unprecedented in the U.S., according to Middlewood. Prior to the mid-20th century, the federal voting age was 21. But the 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, set 18 as the oldest age the federal government and states could set as a minimum qualification for voting in federal elections.
But it doesn’t bar lowering the age.
No state in the U.S. has set a voting age minimum lower than 18, although a few cities have explored using home rule authority to set the voting age at 16 for municipal elections.
Students want a voice in education policy
Kamath and Kate Halabi, vice mayor of the Wichita MYC, argue that high school students are as informed about issues as older voters — particularly after the pandemic’s impact on classrooms.
“Especially with COVID, we saw students who became so frustrated with things school boards were doing, or taking opinions from parents who haven’t stepped in school,” said Kamath.
Beyond COVID-19 issues, students are essentially left without any say in what they learn. That’s been an issue for students when adults have confused critical race theory with thinking more critically about how history has traditionally been taught, Halabi said.
“Education policy isn’t set at the federal level — it’s at the state level,” Halabi said. “But so many youth aren’t involved in local or state government elections.”
Kamath and Halabi said their statements did not necessarily represent the positions of the entire Wichita MYC.
‘Why should my kid vote when they can’t do their laundry?’
The student leaders acknowledge it’s a long shot to get the voting age changed in the 2022 legislative session, or even in the next few years. A big challenge is that those most affected and interested in lowering the voting age aren’t able to vote.
Halabi figures some parents and state lawmakers might hear about the initiative and wonder, “Why should my kid vote when they can’t do their laundry?”
“But by building up public knowledge about it, and getting history and government teachers talking about it, and then the general public, then there’s a much better chance of (lowering the voting age),” she said.
Kamath added that especially in Kansas, lowering the voting age to 16 “could revolutionize the way candidates approach elections.”
“A lot of candidates try to pander to parents, because that’s who is voting, but to force them to listen to us as students — as people — directly impacted by their decisions, I think we can make some really meaningful change,” Kamath said.