Is Youth Activism Enough To Make Young Voters Believe In Voting?

Aug 13, 2018

In light of the school shooting epidemic across the U.S., many teens have become more active within their local communities and are taking a stand for their beliefs.

Youth in Parkland, Florida, and other regions across the country, have encouraged other young people to advocate for issues, big or small. Among those issues is the question of voting. As some youth register to vote for the first time, some are skeptical about what voting can actually achieve.

Take Jose Murrero. The 19 year-year old lives in North Durham. When he turned 18, he wasn’t particularly excited to vote. He has never voted and doesn’t plan on doing so. His community is important to him, but from his perspective, there is no change happening around him, and that is his main concern.

If I can get other people to vote, then I am using my voice even though I couldn't vote for people myself. -Arwen Helms

“If I know you are actually going to do something for the community, if I know you are going to stand your ground and not try to bail out on us, than I would vote for you,” Murrero said. “But if you are just all talk in front of people and you are not actually making anything happen, then I wouldn't want to vote for you.”

Murrero falls into the demographic of black teens that aren’t knowledgeable about politics. He didn’t grow up in a household that talked about May primary’s or November midterms. For Murrero, he needs to see physical change within North Durham, before he supports someone at the poll booth.

“My neighborhood looks janky. Janky means like it looks bad. Like it's a real old neighborhood but it looks bad. My whole side of town needs... a lot of stuff done to it,” Murrero said. “Our streets are horrible. In schools, neighborhoods, if they come out and actually make that change, I actually would be surprised and I want to vote for them.”

Murrero isn’t the only young black man that does not vote. Election data shows that young black people just aren’t active in certain elections in North Carolina.

Young people - especially young blacks - are less likely to vote, according to state elections data.
Credit N.C. State Board of Elections / Jason deBruyn

According to state data, there are close to 210,000 young black people between the ages of 18 to 25 registered to vote in North Carolina. But in the May primary, only 6,500 of them cast a ballot. And overall, black youth are less likely to vote compared to overall youth in the state.

Still, from 2014 to 2018, the percentage of black youth that vote in primaries went up by 11.6 percent. Though young black people are voting more, there are teens like Murrero who aren’t informed, so talking with local candidates is important to them.

“I see posters and signs or what not in yards and around the area, but its like 'Who are you?' I don't know who you are," he said. "Nobody is actually putting pictures of themselves or coming out publicly speaking. Like Walmart, I will never see a governor or mayor of Durham, North Carolina, walk around Walmart ever. So if they come out and stop being behind closed doors, I feel like we would get more comfortable with them and we would actually talk with them more.”

Voter Organizations Are Here to Help

For myself, I don’t know a lot about local politics, but I also don’t think I am alone on this. It's overwhelming for me to see all the different election and candidates, and as someone who wants to do more, voting can feel complicated.

To help, there are organizations out there to get people informed and make voting seem much easier.

Earlier this summer, I spent the day with Flip NC, a voter organization that helps elect progressive candidates in the state. Not only do they encourage voter participation, but they offer information about local candidates and send postcards before elections to remind people to vote.

Wendy Greene and daughter Arwen Helms talk with Timothy Blevins during their voter-canvassing trip with organization, FLIP NC, on July 22, 2018.
Credit Emmanuel Tobe / For WUNC

I tagged along with Arwen Helms, 14, as she canvassed for the organization with her mother, Wendy Greene. Helms wants to use her voice politically, despite being too young to vote herself.

“I feel like it is really important for young people to get involved because we are going to be the next voters and the decisions made in the government affect us even though we can't for it,” Helms said. “So if I can get other people to vote, then I am using my voice even though I couldn't vote for people myself.”

For a few hours, I walked door-to-door with the mother-daughter duo. They walked around a neighborhood in Holly Springs, scanning a long list of names, talking with different people about the upcoming midterm. They have only canvassed a couple times, but they enjoy getting out and informing others.

Although she’s young, Helms believes canvassing is important and impactful. She hopes her contribution can make a difference.

“When people voter canvass, it makes the voters more likely to come out to the polls, and that is really important because the more people that come out, the more representative the vote will be, and the better chance we will have of having an actual government that represents us and our interests,” Helms said.

Young Black Voters in North Carolina

The representation of young black people in voter statistics is small. Going to the poll booth should be an easy process, but there are forces making it more complicated, That's something Ajamu Dillahunt, 21 and a rising senior at North Carolina Central University, understands.

“I think whenever we talk about voting, especially in North Carolina after 2013, we have to talk about voter suppression,” Dillahunt said. “We have to talk about people's access to the polls, so I dont think its people not wanting to vote or participating in the political process. I really think it is the ability to have access to the political process.”

Voter suppression is a strategy to influence the outcome of an election by discouraging or preventing specific groups of people from voting.

In North Carolina, that is a common term.

According to The New York Times, recent examples of voter suppression within North Carolina include, constitutional amendments on our November ballot and getting rid of the final Saturday of early voting in state elections - which is when most black voters go to the polls.

In addition, Dillahunt questions the motives of white liberal voter campaigns and finds that the black community is being used, rather than supported.

“Its just white people seeing black people or even black students as just helping win an election, but not as people to help change the political world,” Dillahunt said. “So it's like come out and vote in this election so this person can win, but whereas we should really see it as okay come on this election, so we can get boom boom boom and here how we are going to hold this person accountable, so that these issues can be met.”

On Sunday July 22, 2018, FLIP NC hosted a meeting at Peak of the Vine restaurant and bar. The purpose of the organization is to encourage the community to elect progressives in North Carolina.
Credit Emmanuel Tobe / For WUNC

In hopes of encouraging youth across the country, the March For Our Lives campaign is traveling the U.S., to get more teens registered to vote. But still, not all youth are running to voter booths. For voters like Murrero, all of this youth activism is great, but growing up in North Durham has shown him that action is better than words.

“This is great what they are doing. I don’t actually know anything about this and these people and like I said I needed that change in my community first, before anything. All of this people don’t understand, my community is hurting and that is most important first,” Murrero said.

I can understand where Jose is coming from. Currently, I’m not old enough to vote, but soon I'll be able to go to the polls and cast my ballot. Black youth, like me, like Murrero, might go and vote or choose not to, and with all that I’ve learned, there is no simple answer as to why.

WUNC Data Reporter Jason deBruyn contributed to this report.