A pressing concern of mine in first grade was which Little Debbie snack my mom packed in my lunch.
A young girl named Adele, though -- probably around first grade, based on her handwriting -- is writing letters to her congresswoman asking about the struggles of doing her job in the face of racism and COVID-19.
U.S. Rep. Cori Bush's office shared Adele's letter with me after an interview with Bush and St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones. I had asked them about ways to get young people more politically engaged. Bush told me about the letters she receives from constituents years away from voting.
They are more engaged and politically aware than we ever were, she said. In some of the other letters her office shared, high schoolers wrote to her on issues as wide-ranging as the persecution of Uyghurs in China, the plight of the North Korean people and the devastating impacts of mass incarceration. These young letter writers also pointed to bills and possible solutions to address the concerns they raised.
That's impressive and inspiring.
Mayor Jones said a key to encouraging this type of involvement is connecting local, state and federal policies and political actions to issues that impact young people's lives. We have witnessed students doing exactly that for the past several years -- marching and lobbying for action on climate change, gun safety and racial justice.
The biggest question was whether their rising activism would translate to greater numbers of young people casting ballots in elections.
The data show that it did.
Ronald Brownstein writes in The Atlantic that, "Both Pew and Catalist found that the racially diverse, well-educated, and highly secular Millennials (born from 1981 through 1996) and Generation Z (born from 1997 through 2014) cast almost 30% of the votes last year, up substantially from 23% in 2016."
Turnout among these younger generations spiked to historic levels in the midterms and last presidential election. It remains to be seen if that trend holds true in upcoming elections.
I was teaching first-year college students during the 2018 midterm elections. I advised them to check online whether their voter registration was valid. I reminded them when the deadline to register approached. I encouraged them to request absentee ballots if they were registered out of state. And I urged them to take a friend when they went to cast their ballot. The vast majority were first-time voters, and studies show that voting is habit-forming.
Some of my students had to get their parents to call the board of elections in their home state multiple times to track down an absentee ballot. One parent had to FedEx a ballot to her child. Because of the unexpected surge in youth turnout that year, some of my students waited in lines for more than five hours to cast a ballot.
Obviously, not all students are able to do this. It grates on my nerves when commenters criticize low turnout among the youngest voters. The more relevant question is: Why do some states make it so difficult for young people to cast a ballot?
The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University found that states with more voting rights protections -- like automatic voter registration, online voter registration, same-day or Election Day registration, early voting and no-excuse absentee voting -- had significantly higher youth voter turnout. Their analysis found that on average, youth voter turnout was highest (57%), and had the largest increases over 2016, in states that automatically mailed ballots to voters. States with the most restrictive vote-by-mail laws, conversely, had the lowest youth turnout: an average of 42%.
Parents and teachers in states with restrictive voting laws ought to point out that politicians are making it harder for young adults to vote -- on purpose.
We've already seen a wave of voter suppression laws enacted in Republican-controlled states across the country. That's bound to get the attention of savvy young people who are beginning to recognize their political power.
I wouldn't underestimate them.