Activists Talk Youth Voter Engagement at Harvard IOP

Youth activists from across the country — including David Hogg, co-founder of March for Our Lives, and Jessica Browning, College Republican National Committee national co-chair  — gathered at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum Monday evening to discuss youth voter engagement.

Hogg and Browning were joined by Bria Smith, a youth council representative from Milwaukee, Wis.; Jonathan Rangel, a California youth activist; and Theodore N. Landis ’20, co-founder of the Harvard Votes Challenge. New York Times journalist Farah N. Stockman ’96, who has written about voter engagement on college campuses across the county, moderated the panel.

An Institute of Politics poll, released in April 2018, found that more than 37 percent of young Americans said they “definitely will be voting” in the 2018 elections — an increase of 17 percentage points from those surveyed in 2010, the last time a “wave” election occurred.

“What everyone has described here is a political moment where youth activism is on the rise, and where youth voices are really making an impact,” said Landis, who led the IOP program which develops and administers the poll.

Activating the Youth Vote
Harvard Votes Challenge — which aims to boost voter turnout among students — hosted a panel of students activists at the Institute of Politics.
The panelists discussed the importance of civic education in informing these younger voters about the issues facing their communities and the policies of candidates running for office.


Rangel, a high school junior who works with youth organizing program 99 Rootz in California’s Central Valley, said it is especially crucial for students in rural areas to not be complacent with local issues, and to embrace their ability to make change.

“A lot of the youth don’t really get an education even in school about different political views and standpoints,” Rangel said. “In a way, I sort of take on the task — along with a lot of my friends and different leaders in our community — to try to inform the youth about the issues.”

The panelists agreed that emphasizing local issues could help mobilize young voters.

“In my community, we have toxic 1,2,3 TCP in our water,” Rangel added. “Youth, our peers, just thought, 'Oh, nasty water,’ but that’s not the case. We try to let them know the different issues going on in our community.”

Stockman pointed out that in local politics especially, voter efficacy is readily apparent.

“People can win an election with like a few hundred votes,” Stockman said.  “I don’t think a lot of people understand how important it is. People get all into voting for president but when it comes to your local issues, that’s actually where you can make the biggest difference.”

Smith said in her community of Milwaukee, Wis., many youth voters are convinced that “our votes don’t matter because the people sitting in those seats do not represent us.”

“That’s a culture that youth are trying to reform now,” she said. “There are people running for office who’ve never even set foot in my community, because they know that people there will not vote for them, so what’s the point of wasting their time and breath?”

Smith and Hogg both said there is a dearth of politicians who represent youth voters.

“At the end of the day, the only way that we’re going to make older politicians care about us is by voting,” Hogg said.

Landis also introduced the Harvard Votes Challenge — an initiative to register students across the University to vote — and said his group’s mission goes beyond the midterm elections.

“We really need to ingrain voting into Harvard’s culture,” Landis said. “Everyone here knows there are three things you have to do to graduate from Harvard. You know, the John Harvard statue, the Widener thing, but there’s going to be a fourth by the time we’re done. The fourth thing is going to be voting.”

—Staff writer Alexandra A. Chaidez can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @a_achaidez.

—Staff writer Simone C. Chu can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @simonechu_.


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