Young Feminists are Waging a New Fight for the Ballot

The Future is Ms. is an ongoing series of news reports by young feminists. This post is made possible by a grant from SayItForward.org in support of teen journalists.

Whether working the phone bank for Hillary Clinton or debating criminal justice policy at the dinner table, Sylvana Widman can’t remember a time she didn’t follow politics. She also can’t remember voting—but that’s not her fault. She’s not old enough.

“I’m always interested in finding out what needs to be fixed in politics,” said Widman, 16, who mobilizes students to support the Young Voter Act as the New York Chair of the Youth Progressive Policy Group (YPPG), a New York- and New Jersey-based organization started in 2016. If the Act passed, New York would be the first state to lower the voting age to 17.

YPPG activists outside a New York State legislature office building in Albany. (YPPG)

Although YPPG organizes at the state level, local city councils have made the most progress for politically engaged teens. In Maryland and California, cities where 17-year-olds can vote in local elections, they turned out at higher rates than other age groups. Still, minors cannot vote for president anywhere—however, with momentum from youth activists in the March for Our Lives movement, 17-year-olds in New York could influence policy on gun control, climate change, student debt and more.

When Widman realized, as a first-year student at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan, that her debate teammates, who were passionate and informed about these issues, lacked a vote, she joined YPPG. “Young people have the resources to be able to make sensible decisions,” she told Ms., “and will potentially be empowered by what we’re trying to do.”

In April, Widman and other YPPG members went to Albany with 80 students to lobby in support of the bill. After crowdfunding $1,270 through GoFundMe, YPPG provided transportation for students to talk with Assemblyman Robert Carroll (D-Brooklyn), the bill’s sponsor. Although the bill failed this session, YPPG will continue to work with Assemblyman Carroll to pass it next term.

Young people are more likely than other voters to report that issues, not personalities, influenced their decision—and Carroll believes that voting in high school can mean the difference between apathy and long term civic engagement. “If they haven’t gotten into that good habit of going to vote, it can take years before they reactivate into a civic mindset,” he told Ms. “You’re not going to end up voting in races for the state legislature or your city council or your congressperson.”

Young people also face the consequences of the decisions made by their lawmakers—and sometimes, they are uniquely at their center. “The same things that affect everyone affect young people,” Carroll noted, “but student debt is a huge issue.” Grace Myers, 18, agrees.“Being able to get more grants from the government for student loans” matters to her and her peers, she said—a key point in a country where women hold nearly two-thirds of student loan debt.

In March, YPPG rallied around another key issue for young voters: gun control. YPPG leaders registered voters at the New York City March for Our Lives—a priority for the team because young registered voters have higher turnout than older registered voters. “It’s important that people who have the ability to speak up about issues and have the ability to change,” Widman said, “should exercise that.”

Working with Zero Hour, YPPG also recently co-organized a New York City march to support climate-conscious policies. Going forward, Widman hopes to expand YPPG’s efforts to the Climate and Community Protection Act, which would transition New York State to renewable energy.

“Young people are the ones,” Widman noted, “who are going to have to live in the world that’s being shaped from here on out.”

Elizabeth Meisenzahl is an Index on Censorship Youth Advisor and student journalist based in Rochester, New York.

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