Making Democracy Work: League efforts to transform students into voters

Making Democracy Work: League efforts to transform students into voters

Students line up to speak at a March for Our Lives rally in Port Jefferson Station on March 24. Photo by Alex Petroski

By Judie Gorenstein

Our democracy works best when everyone participates. Although the League of Women Voters works diligently to encourage all citizens to be informed and active participants in our government, engaging and motivating our youth is a particularly important challenge. Nationwide the young are the least likely to turn out to vote. In the 2016 presidential election, only 50 percent of young people voted. Reasons varied from apathy to alienation, from not feeling their votes counted or mattered to not seeing voting as being important.     

Over the past few years local leagues in Suffolk County have made great efforts to transform students into educated and motivated voters, and 2018 is a good example.

Voter registration drives are held at both colleges and high schools.

Vote 18 is an interactive lesson plan for government classes. This program does more than just register students. It takes them first through the history of voting followed by participation in a mock election for a political office. Following the discussion, the students running for office make their speeches, and before a vote is taken a percentage of students are not given ballots and not allowed to vote. Students see for themselves how nonvoters make a difference in election results. The message is strong: Do not give up your power. Your vote does matter. It is not only important to register but to vote. The majority of students register to vote at the end of this lesson.

Students Inside Albany is a selective, three-day program with 60 students chosen by local leagues from all over the state. They have the wonderful experience of seeing for themselves how their government works. They tour the capitol building in Albany, shadow their NYS Senate and NYS Assembly members, sit in on a legislative session, learn how to lobby and much more. The students are often amazed that it is so different from what they anticipated and often are motivated to explore a political career. Some students have even been given summer internships with their elected officials.

Student Day at the Suffolk County Legislature is co-sponsored by the LWV and the Suffolk County Legislature. High school students take a day to learn about their county government by meeting and hearing from the presiding officer and members of the Legislature and department heads and then prepare for and participate in a mock legislative session where they debate and vote on a bill.  

Running and Winning is a one-day workshop for girls from local high schools to encourage them to consider a political career. Women public officials make brief presentations and then are each interviewed by a group of students who design and present their own political campaign for a virtual woman candidate. Many girls who have never considered political careers leave feeling they can do and be anything they want and will consider public service. 

We strive to develop and present programs that will engage students, which has often been difficult. Recently things began to change. Student groups sought out the league and became student members and learned from us.

Next Generation Politics, a youth nonpartisan political group asked the LWV of Huntington to help with its first event, a public debate on the electoral college versus the popular vote. This group has now affiliated with over 50 chapters in 15 states and works to promote its mission of nonpartisanship and civic engagement. 

Girl Scout troops called the LWV of the Hamptons to develop a program to help their girls earn their suffrage badge. Libraries and high schools have contacted us asking to do youth programs because of a need and interest in their community. 

On college campuses, students came up to our voter registration table and thanked us for being there. 

After the shooting at Parkland High and the youth-created activist movement March for Our Lives, students everywhere are seeing the need to act, to speak out and to have their voices heard. They are now engaging each other, realizing the power of their vote and wanting to make a difference as the future leaders of our country.

Judie Gorenstein is vice president for voter services of the League of Women Voters of Suffolk County, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that encourages the informed and active participation of citizens in government and influences public policy through education and advocacy. For more information, visit www.lwv-suffolkcounty.org, email league@lwv-suffolkcounty.org or call 631-862-6860.

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