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Progressive Voice: The Youth Vote and Moving Virginia Democracy Forward

Isabel Alcalde and Alex ChandlerBy Isabel Alcalde and Alex Chandler

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or ARLnow.com.

While some of the individual results may be important, proponents of a fair and representative democracy see little to celebrate overall in the 2015 Virginia general election results.

Only 26.5% of eligible voters turned out to vote on Nov. 3. Only 29 out of the 100 House races had a two-party contest. Of those, only six races were seen as truly competitive. Thus, the Washington Post lamented that 2015 was “a carnival of cakewalks” that left the average Virginia voter “powerless.”

Inspire Virginia is a civic engagement organization based in Arlington. We are supported by Project High Hopes, a nonprofit organization that was founded by Ira Lechner, who once represented Arlington in Virginia’s House of Delegates.

Through its work, Inspire Virginia has an understanding of the frustrations identified by the Washington Post and experienced by voters. We believe that hope lies in the youth vote and that is why we support and empower high school student leaders to mobilize the youth vote.

A healthy and representative democracy requires ideas, debate, and votes from every demographic. Young people offer unique attributes that could energize Virginia elections and the political process:

  • Young people are more likely than other age groups to be unaffiliated with a specific party and want candidate interaction beyond just party identification.
  • Surveys in 2000 and 2008 showed 18 to 29 year-olds cared about candidates’ positions on issues over leadership/personal qualities more than any other age group.
  • Studies show active young voters influence members of households to go and vote. It’s simple: young people bring others along with them to vote.

Inspire Virginia is working to transform the way the youth vote is viewed; we must empower every eligible high school student to vote as soon as they are eligible.

In August, Inspire Virginia brought together 60 students from 18 different high schools in six different counties, including Washington-Lee High School in Arlington. Together, these students formed Inspire Virginia’s inaugural class.

Inspire Virginia recruits three or four exceptional leaders in partner high schools across the state.  These juniors and seniors must be willing and committed to improving Virginia’s democracy, starting with their own schools.

We educate, train, and ultimately, inspire these student leaders to return to their schools and mobilize their peers to participate in the democratic process. Our mission is to inspire student leaders in each high school across the state to register every eligible student and empower those students to vote. Already, these “Inspired Leaders” are reaching out to community leaders and asking for greater inclusion of youth in the democratic process.

In the weeks since the summer conference, Inspired Leaders have worked to register 172 voters, and nearly 900 of their peers have pledged to register when they become eligible. These 1,072 youth votes are just the beginning.

As one of our student leaders, Jessica Edwards, a junior at Saint Stephens and Saint Agnes High School, wrote:

“It’s truly incredible to see all the amazing work that other schools are doing through Inspire so quickly. Additionally, it’s great to know that the stereotype that youths are apathetic and lazy is certainly false, as proven by the work of Inspire Leaders all over the nation. “

The coming year presents a unique opportunity for all of us to engage the youth vote. Virginia law allows 17 year-olds to register and vote in primary elections as long as they will turn 18 by the general election. For 2016, that means many seniors can register and vote in both the March presidential primary and the June primary for Congress and other offices. These are two opportunities for young people to become active voters — and get in the habit of voting — even before graduating high school.

Our state, by incorporating the collective youth demographic into Virginia civic life, will reinvigorate an elections process that has been criticized as stale and ineffective. This is why Inspire Virginia is working to register thousands of new, interactive voters across the state. We hope you will join us in welcoming and supporting these new additions to the electorate. For more information, visit our website.

Isabel Alcalde and Alex Chandler are Program Coordinators for Inspire Virginia. Inspire Virginia is the seventh state chapter of Inspire US, a unique program dedicated to supporting students in a year-long civic experience.

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