Five Ways You Can Support the Youth Vote and Help Fulfill the Promise of the 26th Amendment

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. It was a critical step in the expansion of democracy, and one where rural young people were on the front lines to end voter suppression. 

While there has been progress, the promise of the 26th Amendment remains partially unfulfilled as long as some youth — including rural young people — are underrepresented in the electorate. 

Last month, The Rural Youth Catalyst Project, the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), and the Rural Assembly hosted a panel discussion with rural leaders to reflect on the historical significance and fight to fulfill the promise of the 26th Amendment.  

The conversation ranged from the history of voting and civil rights to the current challenges faced by young rural voters.

From that discussion, we’ve pulled five ways you can support the youth vote — and help fulfill the promise of the 26th Amendment. 

 

1. “Meet Them Where They Are”

Part of convincing someone that their vote matters is making sure they know they matter most of all. Start showing up — whether that be for tea time, church, or a high school assembly meeting. 

“I think that the way that we talk to people in rural America is we meet them where they are,” said panelist Carol Blackmon, senior consultant and human rights coordinator for Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative for Economic and Social Justice. “I go in with an open mind and I try to figure out where everyone is and try and meet them at that level to have an open, honest conversation with them so that they can feel that I’m really reaching out to feel them and their communities and to be supportive about where they are and how to move what their issues are forward.”

And once those open conversations begin it’s important not to just repeat what’s in national headlines.

“I know that a lot of people in rural areas feel that they get their education around electoral issues from TV news, which is I think a discredit to them,” said Blackmon. “I think there needs to be more homegrown opportunities for young people in communities to feel…the role that they play in actually making a difference in their own communities and bringing about community change.” 

Change starts when you…

2. Share what matters. 

In a time where the internet provides a wealth of information at any given moment, it can be hard to know what is relevant. Local elections come and go — and between school, family and other responsibilities, it’s easy to be none the wiser about them. 

That’s why local activists like Mamie Cunningham cater her outreach to youth so they easily know the who, what, when, where, and why these elections matter. Cunningham first became involved in the Civil Rights Movement as a student in 1964 at Rust College, where along with other students from across the country, she began registering people to vote. Because of her work that summer, she was chosen as an observer to travel with members of the newly formed Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MDFP) to challenge the all-white, all-male Mississippi Democratic Party delegation to Atlantic City, New Jersey. 

I tell them what the issues are and who perhaps may be the best candidate to vote for. I don’t tell them who to vote for, but I give them a little background information about the person that are running. We recently had a supervisor election, and a lot of people didn’t know these people, but I knew how they had voted, some were in common and some were new candidates. I do that and I have gone into schools and passed out voter registration applications to seniors, left it with the secretary or the principal to pass out to them. And what I usually do, when I get someone up, when I get them to fill out an application, I always go back and pick it up. I don’t trust them to mail it in. So usually I just give them out, go back, pick them up. If I don’t do it on the spot, I pick them up and return them to the courthouse myself,” Cunningham said. 

Youth need to be informed on the laws and legislation that directly or indirectly impact their futures — like who’s running for school board or city council. 

But to do so you need to….

3. Put your parachute away.

Often, voters only seem to matter during a presidential election. Some foundations and national organizations seem to dive down from above, dollars in hand, without putting any real roots down, the panelists said.

One of the things that I think is really critical to understanding this is that when people are reaching out to young folks, and I hope we can talk about this, usually it’s like parachuting into communities and not investing in the homegrown efforts,” said Abby Kiesa, deputy director of Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).

Local voices are the gears of changing our policies and culture. When you neglect the gears of change, you ultimately stagnate the movement and push them to the outskirts. 

“These national organizations that want to parachute in for an election or want to parachute in for a very limited time to perform a very limited function…while they say that they want to hear from the community, oftentimes, the culture of this national political conversation, it pushes out the people that are most impacted by the decision that are made,” said Juan Ruiz, community organizer in the US-Mexico border city of Laredo, Texas. “And I think that’s why, when we talk about disillusionment in the political process … those are the kinds of things that push people away.” 

When it comes to outreach…

4. Remember, it’s not just about votes and money

Making these too much of a priority creates an election echo chambers and those help no one. 

“Our director talks about it as shifting from thinking about mobilizing people to thinking about growing voters,” Kiesa said. “Where young people matter regardless of who you think they’re going to vote for, or whether or not you think that they’re going to vote at all. Regardless of race, family background, neighborhood.” 

Extractive outreach only emphasizes the idea that particular groups or locations lack nuance in voting. Once those votes have been secured there is no more investments to be made and people feel used.

“In South Texas it’s always been assumed that we’re a voting block that votes a certain way and what you saw in the past election is that there is an effort to mobilize and to get new voters…out to vote,” said Juan Ruiz. “…unfortunately what I saw…[was] this last minute surge of money coming in…it wasn’t enough to really leave an imprint on people’s minds as to why they should vote for that person or for this set of ideas and for these set of values. It was just, ‘throw money at it to see if it works.” 

With our political climate and social media economy, this is something young people have seen before and could prevent them from wanting to vote at all. 

To prove them wrong…

5. Foster the youth vote by playing the long-game

I think that the same level of investment in rural community democracy needs to be paid that is being paid to military recruitment from rural communities,” said Carol Blackmon. 

Elections are temporary, mindsets are not and take time to nurture into action. 

“In our post election survey, after the 2020 election, we heard from BIPOC youth in rural areas. 8 in 10 youth said, ‘It’s my responsibility to get involved and make things better for society.’ And almost 8 in 10 BIPOC youth also said, ‘People like me should participate in political activities and decision making of this country.’ So the interest is there, but what we’ve seen election cycle after election cycle, is that the access isn’t there, that there is a huge rift in what some people, especially folks in philanthropy think is the issue, and what’s actually the issue,” Kiesa said.

Playing the long-game includes focusing on how to increase access.

Instead of focusing elections and outreach on people who voted already, let’s focus on supporting people who’ve never voted,” said Kiesa. “It means having year-round conversations and not waiting until the last three months before an election to reach out to people.” 

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To hear more about rural youth voting and other initiatives from the Rural Youth Catalyst Project and Rural Assembly, subscribe to our weekly newsletter.

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