Young voices can shape our nation’s future. Let them be heard | Lloyd E. Sheaffer

A resident waits in line to vote at a polling place in Milwaukee for the April 7, 2020, primary election. Residents waited sometimes more than two hours to vote at this site, one of the few polling places open in the city after most were consolidated due to a shortage of poll workers fearful of contracting COVID-19. Photo by Scott Olson | Getty Images

When I was a youngster decades ago, every spring and fall my grandfather had a special gift for me: a large, paper sample ballot for each upcoming primary or general election, the kind posted on the walls of the polling place for people to examine.

Lloyd E. Sheaffer (Capital-Star file)

Pappy was an election official for our township who took the voting process seriously, and he wanted to make sure I understood the importance of elections so that when I reached the age of majority, I would be prepared and informed.

On the days before and after the election, Pappy would not be working in his truck farm patches; he would be working in, what was for him, the most important Constitutionally guaranteed right: the electoral process.

My grandfather’s dedication to elections may be why I have missed voting in, if I remember correctly, only two elections—both primary ones that occurred while we were traveling—since I cast my first vote when I was twenty-one.

His involving me when I was in my elementary-school years may also be a reason I am pleased when I read a headline such as “Not old enough to vote, but old enough to help: How teens are helping to avert an election crisis.”

This is just one of several news stories that testify to the commitment to civic duty many of our young adults have.  In particular, they are volunteering at polling places to fill spots typically filled by senior citizens but who this year, because of COVID-19 concerns, cannot serve. They fulfill the roles of certified poll watchers; these tech-savvy teens help with voting machine issues; they volunteer to help orchestrate polling place logistics.

In fact, in some areas high schoolers can serve in more formal positions.

Take the example of Cook County, Illinois:

“The Cook County Clerk’s Office partners with more than 80 high schools across suburban Cook County in an effort to get students engaged in the electoral process. More than 1,500 high school juniors and seniors serve as election judges each year.”

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High school students who participate in the Student Judge program play a crucial role in our democracy. As part of a team of judges, students share the same responsibility for helping voters and supervising polling place activity as adult judges.

Students gain a sense of civic duty and first-hand experience of what it takes to run an election.”

Those who have been following my musing know that I hold our young folks in high regard. Having taught high school students for 33 years has given me insight into how creative and dedicated and passionate they can be when addressing an issue that has meaning to them.

They have not yet become as jaded or cynical about our current problems as have too many more mature citizens. Most of the teens I know have retained their optimism and their commitment to making the nation and the world better. They just need opportunities to serve; the 2020 election provides them such a moment.

Another example of how young people have become an engaged, viable political force is seen in the work of my grandson Noah [Warning: Proud Grandpa bragging ahead].

He has led the organization Students for D.C. Statehood since he was in college at American University. Through his non-profit’s advocacy and alliances with other youth-directed political agencies, the House of Representatives passed H.R. 51 this summer, the first time a chamber of Congress has ever passed legislation making D.C. the 51st state.

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“Residents of Washington, D.C., have been advocating for more representation for generations. But the push for full statehood is now getting more attention than ever before, in part due to the diligent work of a new generation of activists,” report journalists Mikaela Lefrak and Tyrone Turner.

“That’s where D.C.’s cadre of young advocates come in. Many of them have made it their mission to educate Americans outside the District about statehood. They travel to swing states to meet with presidential candidates and voters. They organize lobbying days for young advocates in different parts of the country to meet with their representatives and senators. And they speak at national events like the March on Washington about the importance of statehood.”

As is the case with so many other young adults, Noah remains committed to engender change in the nation; his work for D.C. statehood continues because the issue is about more than statehood per se.

Lefrak and Turner explain, “Above all, they argue that D.C. statehood is inextricably intertwined with other values worth fighting for: Racial justice, gun control, health care access, prison reform and, of course, the right to vote.”

Voting this year is quite different from when I went with Pappy to his polling place, a slightly askew, white-washed shed in the village of Middlesex.

Election day 65-some years ago was an event; yes, people marked their paper ballots, folded them, and dropped them into a big drum. Outside, though, it was more like a party (not a political party). Voters lingered and talked and laughed; the men smoked cigars, and the women gathered in clutches sharing stories. On those Tuesdays there was no harassment, no unofficial (maybe armed) poll checkers, no social rifts between neighbors registered in different parties. They were days of camaraderie and festivity.

I have already submitted my ballot for the current election; it was a sterile experience. No laughter. No stories. No catching up with the neighbors. Just a COVID-masked security guard directing us COVID-masked voters to the drop boxes at the county elections office.

I have read several articles that indicate younger voters this year might determine the outcome of the election.

For instance, “‘Young voters are certainly eager to be involved,’ said Justin Tseng ’22, co-chair of the Harvard Public Opinion Project. According to the project’s September polling, ‘This is going to be a youth-driven election,’ he said. Indeed, the findings of the national poll of 18-to 29-year-olds point to three conclusions. ‘Enthusiasm is way up,’ said Tseng, noting that 63 percent of respondents said they’d definitely be voting, compared with 47 percent four years ago.”

It is these young voices that can shape our nation’s direction. I hope so. Our country needs the revitalizing energy of our young citizens to break the miasma enshrouding our current political climate.

Thank you, Pappy, for instilling in me the importance of participating in the political process.

Thank you, Noah and your young colleagues, for taking the helm to steer our ship of state toward a course of justice and fairness and equality for all.

Opinion contributor Lloyd E. Sheaffer, a retired English and Humanities teacher, writes from North Middleton Township, Pa. His work appears monthly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may email him at [email protected].