It’s been a busy fall for Shiva Rajbhandari. The 16-year-old from Boise, Idaho, works with Babe Vote, a cheekily named nonpartisan group that helps register voters in the state and also encourages them to commit to a voting plan.
Masked up and wearing a “Babe Vote” tank top, Rajbhandari volunteers at local events and rallies, handing out slips of paper with QR codes that, when scanned, direct would-be voters to a voting registration page. (“Those QR codes have made the entire transaction contactless,” he said.)
Sometimes he and his group would go door-to-door at low-cost housing complexes to help register people, always clad in masks and gloves and standing 6 feet away from the door.
Two weeks before the general election, the high school sophomore has registered more than 400 people. He’s still bummed that he can’t vote, but he’s heartened knowing that his work is having an effect.
“As a 16-year-old, I’m pained that I can’t vote in an election so vital for the future of our democracy,” he said. “Registering others like this and getting the word out, especially among people usually marginalized by the political system, is one way that I can make sure that everyone’s voice can be heard.”
Rajbhandari is one of many teens across the U.S. who, despite not being able to vote themselves, are helping others vote. They’re getting folks to register online through phone banking, through postcard campaigns and in person, with proper safety precautions in place.
Many are becoming poll workers (and getting a little pocket change in the process) ― filling in for the older poll workers who are sitting out this election due to their heightened risks in the COVID-19 pandemic. They’re even volunteering to drive voters with disabilities or lack of transportation to polling places, through organizations like Carpool Vote.
Many Gen Z-ers who’ve stepped up say they were motivated to do so after seeing the disappointingly low turnout of younger voters in 2016: Only 46% of 18- to 29-year-olds voted in the general election, compared with 71% of those older than 65.
There’s cause for optimism in 2020, though: The census found that 36% of citizens ages 18 to 29 reported voting in the 2018 midterm elections, jumping 16 percentage points since 2014 (when turnout was 20%) and easily exceeding any midterm election since the 1980s.
And a new study from the Knight Foundation suggests the youth turnout may be even higher this time; the foundation found more than 70% of college students intend to vote in Nov. 3 election.
That’s great news, but Catie Jacobson, a 17-year-old from Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, doesn’t want to chance it. That’s why she’s been volunteering lately with Students Demand Action, a national youth agency that encourages political leaders to pass safer gun laws.
“Even if I can’t cast my ballot this year, by registering my peers, my generation will be my voice,” she said. “I can’t improve my country by casting my ballot, so my role is to help others cast theirs.”
Jacobson says there are many issues at stake in this election, but passing sensible gun reform weighs most on her mind. She’s sick of seeing the names of elementary schools and high schools trending on Twitter after each new mass shooting.
“Not only are we working to enact common-sense gun legislation to reduce gun violence at Students Demand Action, but in this election, it feels as though we are working to preserve democracy itself,” she said.
Generation Z (roughly those born from the mid- to late 1990s to the early 2010s) makes up a tenth of the electorate this year. Jacobson and her peers at Students Demand Action are trying to engage those 18- to 24-year-olds through traditional phone banks but also by texting and social media outreach. (Why not slide into DMs and ask if someone has a voting plan?)
Talia LeVine, a 15-year-old high school sophomore in Seattle, is also working with Students Demand Action. She said the group has called the last few months the Summer of Action, but now that there are only a few weeks to go, they’ve brought on more people and have taken to calling their campaign the Final Days of Action.
LeVine grew up volunteering. When talking about her efforts in this election and activism in general, she’s quick to reference “tikkun olam,” a Jewish value her parents instilled in her that means “repairing the world” and that’s often used synonymously with social action.
In the wake of widespread protests, a global health crisis and political upheaval, LeVine sees registering voters as a small but vital way to repair the world. It’s personal for her, too, though.
“I’ve always volunteered, but when I discovered that I was queer, I was even more driven to work hard to make the world a better place,” she said. “If I want to get married when I am older, I should be able to get married. I shouldn’t be able to be fired for being a member of the LGBTQIA+ community. No one should be fired for their identities.”
“The stakes of this election really are so high,” she added.
Chanté Davis, a 16-year-old from Houston, felt compelled to volunteer because of her lived experiences as well. Davis is volunteering with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization that advocates for political action on climate change. As it has in the past, the group is also backing a slate of progressive, pro-Green New Deal candidates this election.
The teen is on the creative team for Mike Siegel and Julie Oliver, two Sunrise-endorsed congressional candidates running in Texas. In her free time, she’s been putting her Photoshop skills to use, creating political memes and phone banking graphics. When she’s not doing that, she’s reaching out to voters who’ll share why they’re backing Siegel and Oliver for campaign content.
Prior to this, Davis said she “never saw [herself] as a politically active civilian,” but lately she’s realized her personal experiences growing up in Houston are inherently political matters. She used climate change as an example.
“As a person of color who’s experienced multiple climate disasters (Hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Harvey, and Tropical Storm Imelda), I’ve come to know that climate change isn’t a far-off problem that will be solved by the adults,” she said.
It wasn’t until the fall of 2019, when Davis saw the wave of student-led walk-outs and climate strikes in more than 3,600 locations across the world, that she figured, “Why shouldn’t I get involved, too?”
“Participating in this election was significant to me as a member of a marginalized, frontline community because I’ve witnessed firsthand how we tend to be counted out after climate episodes, which has allowed me to realize how much is at stake,” she said.
The desire to see meaningful policy change may be the prime motivating factor for teens getting involved, but pandemic boredom at home played a part, too. Quarantining with your parents is considerably less boring when you know that your social media activity has the potential to shape the election.
Take the impressive work of the Poll Hero project: It’s a nonpartisan nationwide group that has recruited thousands of high school and college students to be poll workers, almost entirely through online efforts. So far they’ve recruited more than 30,000 young Americans to train as poll workers.
Leo Kamin is a 17-year-old and one of the co-founders of the Poll Hero project. Its main goal, he said, is to “protect democracy” by making sure polling stations are fully staffed so voters don’t have to wait in three-hour lines.
They look for would-be poll workers online. While making his pitch, Kamlin said he likes to stress that you do get paid.
“We use Instagram DMs and email to reach out to teenagers in cities where we know there is an abundant need for poll workers,” he told HuffPost.
Kamin looks at the potential structural barriers to voting this year ― voter ID requirements, voter roll purges, felon disenfranchisement, closures of polling sites, all of which disproportionately affect Black, Latino and Indigenous communities ― and he worries that our democratic processes could be undermined.
Given those abundant hurdles, it’s easy to see how a young person might be disillusioned with the voting process and the political system as a whole. Political commentators are quick to point out that many young people don’t vote because the candidates offered to them don’t reflect their values.
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter marches in the spring and summer, some young activists see people-organizing and taking to the streets as a more effective means to an end ― and indeed, those marches did bring about sizable change.
But the teens we spoke with said they witnessed the passion that went into the protests over police brutality over the last six months and it inspired them to volunteer, to channel that activism into action. They figure: Protest your heart out, but don’t forget to vote.
“This election is certainly the most contentious I remember in the short time I have been politically conscious,” Kamin said. “By working the polls, I can do my small part to ensure that things go as smoothly as possible.”
When asked what advice they’d give other teens looking to get involved in the election, the teens said first you have to find something you’re passionate about. Maybe it’s a candidate that closely aligns with your views and whom you wouldn’t mind phone banking for. Maybe it’s a nonprofit group working to affect policies on climate change, gun reform, LGBTQ+ issues or women’s rights. Or maybe it’s simply ensuring that people have the right to vote as quickly and as easily as possible by working the polls.
Once you’ve found your political passion project, start small. As Davis said, you don’t have to be the next Greta Thunberg to get involved in a movement, or the election, for that matter.
“Whether you are a few years away from being able to vote or you missed the voting margin by a month, your voice matters because this is probably one of the most important elections we’re going to encounter in our lives,” she said. “I really believe we need all hands on deck to ensure the continuation of our democracy.”