Dozens of high school students huddled around a row of computer screens, their fingers flying across the keyboards as they typed in their birthdays, zip codes and preferred political parties on voter registration forms. Andrea Yagher, 16, stood among the crowd, smiling widely as she gazed out at faces both familiar and unknown.
Yagher was in the middle of hosting a drive in Los Angeles for her group, Our First Vote (OFV), which registers and pre-registers students to vote and educates them on current political issues. Pre-registering allows future voters younger than 18 to file registration paperwork before they’re even eligible to cast a ballot.
Watching yet another one of her peers scrawl their signature onto the nearly full sign-up sheet, Yagher could finally see her efforts to mobilize her generation to vote turning into a reality. “The [voter] drive made me feel like our generation has so much power,” she told Ms. “It’s our right to vote as citizens, so it’s our right and responsibility to exercise that privilege as much as we possibly can.”
Although she is still two years away from casting a ballot herself, Yagher launched OFV during the 2016 presidential election after hearing from peers that the acerbity of the political campaigns discouraged them from voting. “I just felt helpless during the election season,” she explained. “I knew I didn’t have any control over voting itself, because I am a kid and I can’t vote, but it was really annoying to see that there was all this awful stuff happening and that so many people who could vote were not voting.”
In the months since, Yagher has registered and pre-registered over 500 students in the Los Angeles area and educated many more through the OFV Fact-Hub, which focuses on providing students with information from non-partisan sources about current issues surrounding equal rights, the environment and education. Before the midterms, Yagher will continue to spread her message of youth activism in the polls at the four drives planned for this fall in the Los Angeles area—but in the months and years to come, she hopes to expand Our First Vote’s registration drives to high schools all across the nation.
Our First Vote has come of age amidst growing efforts to encourage members of Generation Z to vote, with national campaigns like 22×20 working on a more widespread scale to bring educated and motivated teenagers to the polls. While low voter turnout in younger generations is far from a new issue, the shift towards mobilization is both a recent and welcome change.
“People have started to realize that we needed to shift our paradigm in thinking about young people,” said Abby Kiesa, the director of impact at the Tufts University-based Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement which sponsors 22×20, “from assuming that they know what people who have been voting for 30 years know to making sure that we are asking all young people to cast ballots and participate in democracy.”
Peer-to-peer organizations like Our First Vote, in particular, helped break these generational blocks by allowing kids to empower each other. “We are all working as a team to inspire each other,” Yagher said. “Sometimes it’s just not as motivating for kids to listen to a bunch of adults.”
Sofia Heller, 17, who pre-registered to vote at one of Yagher’s drives, said that registering to vote besides dozens of other young women helped her to feel more empowered as a feminist. “When I pre-registered to vote, I felt like I was one step closer to being a voice in changing legislation,” Heller said. “Whether it’s about feminist issues like abortion or equal pay, or other human rights issues, I cannot wait for the day when I get to vote to protect and defend those rights—and pre-registering brought me so much closer to that point.”
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