After more than three years of advocacy by PA Youth Vote and other youth and democracy organizations, the Board of Education for the School District of Philadelphia is set to consider a nonpartisan Student Voter Education and Registration Resolution (Action Item 25) at its meeting this Thursday.
Since advocates began asking the school board for a student voter policy in 2019, the school district has collaborated with PA Youth Vote to launch several important initiatives, such as compensation for a staff member at each high school to be the “Voter Champion,” a Voter Education and Registration curriculum unit for 12th grade civics classes, regular professional development for teachers, and voter engagement assemblies for students.
Last fall, at the urging of school board member Mallory Fix Lopez and student board representative Rebecca Allen, the board began considering making these initiatives permanent, and drafted the policy resolution on this week’s agenda.
Over the last few weeks we’ve seen support pour in from Philadelphia City Council, letters from local and national organizations, and thousands of Philadelphians. Supporters are still able to sign on to these letters of support.
Nearly 8,000 youth turn 18 in Philadelphia public schools every year, yet only 15.2 percent are registered to vote. PA Youth Vote and other organizations have shown that dedicated teachers and students, with support from the school district, can register 90 to 100 percent of students.
“The earlier we have our fellow Americans enact their civic right to vote, the closer we will get to uniting around solutions to what divides us, and truly having our principles endure. We are not too young to know the world,” said Oscar Lopez, a Central High School student.
As for the myth that young people don’t vote: The Philadelphia City Commissioners Office has shown that 74 percent of 18 year olds voted in 2020—a rate higher than Philadelphia’s overall turnout of 66 percent. When schools explicitly teach how to “do democracy” and share candidate information in a critical and timely way, registered teens turn out to vote in high numbers.
If 8,000 additional teen voters began showing up to the polls every year, the long-standing concerns of students, parents and teachers with regard to underfunding could be addressed more effectively within the political process, let alone the many other issues that impact the people of Philadelphia, such as gun violence, poverty, mental health, and mass incarceration. Voter engagement is an investment in our city, and the younger we engage the electorate, the more likely they are to stay engaged as lifelong voters.
“The earlier we have our fellow Americans enact their civic right to vote, the closer we will get to uniting around solutions to what divides us, and truly having our principles endure. We are not too young to know the world,” said Oscar Lopez, a Central High School student, testifying before the school board in May 2019.
“Today most young adults don’t realize we are the future for our elected officials to carry out our wants and desires,” added student Jaimon Washington of Parkway Northwest High School. “In this state of emergency—with young Black men often incarcerated or dead—this alone is why it’s crucial to learn the fundamentals of voter education.”
Students, organization leaders and elected officials are preparing to testify on Thursday. A historic “Yes” vote on the Student Voter Education and Registration Resolution would make the Philadelphia Board of Education a trendsetter—establishing a citywide policy that school boards across the Commonwealth are likely to examine, modify, and replicate. With 499 other school districts in Pennsylvania, we are just getting started.
From Flossing to Voting, Let’s Keep up the Habit!
By Angelis Pajares
How often do you floss? Every night like you’re supposed to? Or maybe three times a week? Never? I’ll bet a good portion of you are pretty disappointed with your response. I remember being a kid sitting at the dentist and dreading those three expected words. “How’s flossing going?” Like most kids, I may have slightly exaggerated my answer.
I’d say I’m a much better flosser now, but I’m not gonna lie, I still occasionally forget. In hindsight, if I had put in the effort to make flossing a habit as a kid, I’m sure I wouldn’t even think twice about doing it each night now. It would just sorta be natural.
The same goes with voting.
Like flossing, voting is a habit and a healthy one at that. But it’s one that has been neglected.
Our generation will likely feel the future effects of current passing legislation the strongest, yet we currently make up the least active voting block. Now more than ever, it’s important to ensure our elected officials are listening to our concerns and enacting the change we want to see. Think about it. How many times have we had to prove the threat of climate change and yet no major policies have been agreed upon? How many times have we had to march about racial injustices and still minor legislative responses? How many times have we students had to stress the importance of mental health and yet politicians still disregard the urgency of routine care?
Expressing our concerns vocally is absolutely necessary in our democratic system, but the truth is, we can’t forget about the power of our votes. They determine who gets to control our future. It is both our right and our responsibility to vote and flood these offices with politicians who care about our needs. Because if we don’t, then who are we to complain about the outcomes later?
The Youth Vote: Half a Century Later
By Gemma Hong
Youth voices matter.
That is the belief of the Philly students working with PA Youth Vote to register every 18-year old in the city. But some believe that the youth don’t know better, and that their voices should be peripheral in the political world. In a Wall Street Journal article titled “Eighteen Is Too Young to Vote,” Yale professor David Gelernter wrote, “They’ve had enough coddling. First grow up, then vote.”
“Tell that to the students from the Parkland School shooting, or the students who form movements around mental health and climate change,” says Oscar Lopez, a student at Central High School. “We are not too young to know the world.”
Two-thirds of the American population shared that sentiment in 1968 when asked if 18-year-olds should be given the right to vote. (At that time, 21 was voting age.) The 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, granted American citizens aged 18 or older the right to vote. The amendment was the result of a 10-year nationwide and bipartisan effort. The NAACP, Young Democrats, and Young Republicans reached across the aisle because they all believed that youth voices could change the country for the better.
After so much effort, only about half of newly eligible youth voters turned out at the polls. The situation remains largely unchanged today.
Here in Philadelphia, PA Youth Vote aims to combat these low numbers by targeting one of the root causes of low turnout: inaccessible voter registration.
Don’t Hit Me With that “My Vote Doesn’t Matter”
By Lila Dubois
My grandmother hasn’t voted in a presidential election since 1992. She’s one of the most politically opinionated people I know; election day should be her moment, right? Still, to her, election day is just another glaring example of her inability to affect real change in our democracy.
She is not alone, either. The United States has not exceeded 60 percent voter turnout since the 1960s. Most critically though, this section of non-voters contains a disproportionate number of America’s most underserved peoples. For my grandmother even, I think a huge part of her political frustration stems from the lifetime of push-back she’s faced as a gay woman in the fight for LGBTQ+ civil liberties.
Yet, while there are instances of handily-won races, there are times when margins come down to hundreds, tens, and even a few individual votes.
Just take a look at some instances where my grandmother (or her theoretical equivalent) and a few of her friends could’ve made a difference:
- 2021 Milton, PA Mayoral race: 4 vote margin in favor of Tom Aber (D)
- 2017 Virginia House of Delegates: the race ended in a tie, which was broken by pulling a card. *This win also gave control of the state House to Republicans
- 2016 Wyoming GOP state House primary: 1 vote difference, tallying 583 to 582
- 2016 Arizona GOP primary for the U.S. House of Representatives: 27 vote margin
- 2008 Minnesota U.S. Senate race: Democrat Al Franken wins by 312 out of 2.9 millions votes total. *This win gave Democrats the supermajority in the Senate
… and the list goes on.
#VoteThatJawn, organized by author/Penn professor Lorene Cary, uses the power of youth voice and connection to bring 18-year-olds and other first-time voters to the polls, beginning a process toward full civic engagement.
You can read more student stories on voting at votethatjawn.com.
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