Getting out the youth vote

Amira Ismail, 14, volunteered for Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s team in September. Photo courtesy of Amira.

While most teenagers are playing video games or surfing TikTok aside from their school work, one 14-year-old in Queens is helping voters get to the polls in next week’s election.

A freshman at the Razi Islamic school, Amira Ismail believes it’s her civic duty to partake in this election however she can. In September, she was helping Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’s team collect census data through tabling and canvasing. Today, she is the youngest ambassador in a city campaign to teach young voters about elections and increase their turnout.

“The youth cares,” said Amira, who supports candidates who have a plan to combat climate change. “Many people don’t go out and vote because they don’t think we care about politics or what’s going on today, even though it’s our future.”

Amira is one of 33 ambassadors for We Power NYC, a non-partisan program of the New York City Campaign Finance Board created to educate young voters on local government, elections and mobilization via text drives, social media and peer-to-peer discussion.

Unveiled in February, the effort aims to grow outreach and develop leadership skills among New Yorkers in their teens and 20s. The goal is to double youth turnout in the 2020 presidential and 2021 mayoral elections.

“We know that young people are very passionate about the issues they’re experiencing in their communities,” said program coordinator Olivia Brady. “But what’s lacking is this institutional knowledge of how our government works and how young people are actually able to insert themselves in that process.” 

Though New York City residents under 30 vote in presidential elections at about the same rate as voters overall, they don’t turn out for local races, according to the Campaign Finance Board. Only 13.5% of young voters cast ballots in the 2017 mayoral race, compared to 25% of all voters.

The initiative’s main goal is to get 250,000 young New Yorkers to the polls for the 2021 local election, Brady said. But the first step is growing outreach and getting more youth voters registered and participating in the 2020 elections.

The campaign hopes that the share of youth casting ballots this year will be equal to or higher than the 55% who voted in the 2016 presidential campaign, Brady said. Since nearly 600,000 New Yorkers have voted early so far, Brady expects turnout to be high.

To get more young people involved, We Power NYC launched its three-month pilot in June for the ambassadors, who ranged in age from 14 to 24. They learned how government and elections function and strategized ways to encourage voter engagement through social media.

Some 22 of them, including Amira, decided to stay on through the November election. Since graduation, they’ve worked to expand their outreach through friends, classmates, teachers and families.

Annmarie Gajdos, a 22-year-old from Staten Island, became an ambassador for that very reason. As a first-generation immigrant, she wanted to do her part in informing the youth from underrepresented communities about their voting options.

Her concern is that the youth vote is in jeopardy in the upcoming election. In 2015, she was able to register to vote in her high school political science class. For many recent graduates and current seniors, that opportunity may not be an option due to distanced learning.

Aside from that, most teenagers are not given adequate information on voting to begin with, she said.

“This lack of education lends itself to distrust our bipartisan system,” said Gajdos. “As a result, many do not understand how valuable their vote can be in federal, and especially local, elections.”

We Power NYC and its ambassadors continue to target young voters remotely through methods of social media and text drives.  Over the past month, they focused on informing voters on where and how to place their vote. 

Less than two weeks before the election, 60 ambassadors and volunteers sent more than 138,000 messages out to young voters, said William Fowler, a spokesperson for the Campaign Finance Board.

“Right now, I can’t vote,” said Amira, who plans to register early at 16 and sign up to be a poll worker the following year. “So I feel like it’s kind of my civic duty to urge people that can and have the privilege to go out and vote.”

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Rachel Roberts, an Arkansas native, is a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated from the University of Arkansas, where she studied journalism, political science and French. She’s interested in covering politics, arts and culture. Twitter: @ratchelroberts

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