“Vote for me because I can’t do it,” said Ava Monroe to a woman who was passing by Union Square at noon on Election Day. Monroe, 15 and a sophomore at La Guardia High School, said she was rallying with friends and other students as part of the national “Walkout to Vote” campaign to “spread the idea that voting is a privilege.”
Although rain appeared to lower participation in the walkout, organizers said their focus was on galvanizing young voters. “This year young people have found their voice in a way that we haven’t for a really long time, “ said Katie Eder, 19, a leader of the Future Coalition, a national network of 25 youth-led organizations and initiatives that organized the walkout. “We are realizing that a lot of adults aren’t necessarily looking out for us and our future and that we have to take our matters into our own hands and stand up for what we believe in.”
In 2016, only 46 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted, according to the coalition. Some recent polls, including one by the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School, found that more young people said they planned to vote this year than in the last two midterm elections. Four out of 10 adults under 30 said they would “definitely vote.” Nearly 60 percent of 18- to 25-year-old voters identify as Democrats or lean Democratic, according to a Pew Research Center poll. Two-thirds of likely young voters in Harvard’s poll said they wanted Democrats to control Congress.
Over 500 walkouts were registered on the “Walkout to Vote” website. Aileen Berquist, a project manager at March On, which backs the coalition, said the walkout was just the beginning of a long-term effort to involve young voters. “Youth leaders of the Future Coalition, are not focusing on turnout: this is a grassroots effort of passionate young people who are continuing to work on incredibly important issues, even after the media and much of the country have moved on to other things,” Berquist said in an e-mail.
In Union Square, the focus was on making voting appealing. “Anyone else who wants to be a voting superhero?” asked volunteer marshals donning capes and colorful masks based on the idea that voting is a superpower. A plastic toy loudspeaker echoed the chant “Students united will never be divided.” Daphne Frias, 20, an organizer of the Union Square rally on Tuesday and the New York State leader for Future Coalition, talked about what empowered her in this election.
“For the past year you see this generation come out in various political forms, marching and rallying against gun violence and for environment protection among other political causes,” said Frias, a pre-med student at SUNY Oswego. “We want to show that we are not just demonstrating, we are actually going to impact legislation by casting our ballots today on midterms.”
Frias said young people were encouraged by the way adults responded to student activism after the Parkland shooting in Florida. “We realized that the only power we need to create change is our voice,” she said. “We created organizations across the country to give youth a place to act and create change. Many of them have forgotten that their true purpose is to be representatives of the people and we want to bring back that perspective and say you represent us and we work in collaboration to make sure that passed legislation represents the majority of the people.”
Frias works for the Box the Ballot, an organization that collects absentee ballots from college students. They have partnered with over 70 colleges across the country and have collected over 350,000 ballots.
Students participating in the walkout said they were interested in many issues but realized the importance of raising their voices in unity. Ava Monroe, whose mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, is running a national campaign called “Cure” to promote scientific cancer research but her goal is broader. “We all come together although we might support different causes because we realize that shaping public opinion is essential to our democracy,” she said. “Youth leading any revolution is always more impactful because kids are the underdogs and when we rise up it’s unexpected and powerful.”
Even though they couldn’t vote, other 15-year-old students said they understood the importance of showing up at the polls.
“I think it’s really important to get out and get people discussing it and really comprehend the process and what this is going to mean for our future,” said Maya, who goes to LaGuardia. “I definitely want to see change something happening towards gun reform because in this past decade it’s been normalized in a sense.”
“When you have ancestry of people that were denied their right to vote and now you do have that power, you should exercise it and contribute to the solution,” said Marcus, who attends the Special Music School. “This year a lot more is at stake.”