Ibtihal Gassen has spent about two years of her life engaging her community by encouraging them to vote, despite not yet being eligible to vote herself. The reason, she explains, is because she recognizes the power of the youth vote and that other countries do not have the same voter freedom as the United States.
“I’m Moroccan right and kind of just like thinking, ‘Oh it’s so hard to actually have your voice heard in countries like that,” Gassen, a senior at Central High School, said. “Like America especially, you have the freedom and right to vote and I know in so many other places you don’t which is really sad to me.”
With Election Day so close, local voter advocates and students, like Gassen, are brainstorming the issues that matter most to them, while encouraging other students to vote.
The “youth” vote, defined as 18- to 29-year-olds, has played an influential role in American elections for the past several years.
In the 2020 election, 50% of people ages 18 to 29 voted, an 11-point increase from 2016, according to Tufts University’s Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. In the 2018 midterms, 28.2% turned out, more than double national youth turnout in the 2014 midterms.
This year, youth voters will play a role in the high stakes national midterms which will determine whether Democrats remain in control of the House and Senate, or if Republicans will take over. Young voters could turn out in record or near-record numbers this year, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Top issues for youth voters include abortion, gun violence and the climate, said Thomas Quinn, a teacher at Central and director of education and policy at PA Youth Vote.
“What we, you know, are letting students know is that regardless of where you stand on those issues, candidates are also on very different sides of those issues,” Quinn said. “And it’s gonna really make a difference who wins in this upcoming election and, you know, in the Senate and the governor’s races are just critically important to these issues.”
Philadelphia has played a role in the outcome of recent elections. In 2020, President Joe Biden secured enough electoral votes to become president, in part after winning Pennsylvania with the help of Philadelphia ballots.
Shekinah Nuble, a senior at Parkway Northwest High School, feels as if youth voters are not taken seriously by politicians, especially when it comes to listening to those affected by gun violence.
“They’re not here for us, they’re here for them and they have their own agenda once they come in the office,” Nuble said. “They say they’re going to help us, but then they don’t help us.”
Ariana Jiménez is a junior economics major and program director of the High School Voter Project at the University of Pennsylvania, which promotes civic engagement among local high school students. Through her visits to schools in West Philadelphia she has found some students believe their vote doesn’t matter.
“Sometimes they just don’t know why their vote is important,” Jiménez said. “Or they’ll say upfront, ‘It doesn’t matter. What does it matter, they’re never going to listen anyway?’”
Jayla Clark, a senior at The Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts, is seeing a similar sentiment among youth voters.
“I feel like a lot of people kind of are apprehensive about voting because they feel like nothing is going to change, when it’s been proven that, you know, voting will make a change,” Clark said.
Gassen is the captain of the Voter Engagement Team at Central and while a lot of the students on the team are currently ineligible to vote, she tells them to figure out the reason they are passionate about voting when encouraging other students to be civically engaged.
For Gassen, she cares about many issues including sanitation, Muslim-Arab rights, and immigration. Gun violence is a significant issue for Gassen and other young voters.
As of Nov. 7, there have been 449 homicides and more than 2,000 gunshot victims in Philadelphia so far in 2022, according to the Office of the Controller’s gun violence dashboard.
Charlie McGeehan, a teacher at Academy at Palumbo, found that climate change, abortion, workers’ rights, and gun violence are top concerns in his classes.
“It’s not just the shooting that happened at Roxborough, but I think that is one of the big ones, I think there’s a lot that’s been going on right now,” McGeehan said. “It’s brought gun violence to the top of a lot of students’ minds.”
Billy Seng, a senior at Academy at Palumbo, is worried about gun violence because he plays football after school — the same setting in which a shooting killed one boy and injured four others at Roxborough High School on Sept. 27.
Despite not currently being able to register to vote, Clark is passionate about voter registration and engagement because she has always been interested in politics and the inner workings of a democracy. She hopes local representatives put into office in the upcoming election realize most people are in favor of particular issues.
“I think it’s really, really important that we have representatives that know that we don’t want abortion banned, and we need it to still be available to people,” Clark said.
Abortion has especially become a hot-button issue after the Supreme Court of the United States overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022 with its Dobbs v. Woman’s Health Organization ruling.
Rebecca Allen, a senior at Central who is planning to vote in the midterms, cares most about gun violence, incarceration, police and prison reform, reproductive rights, and education.
Since 2013, 39 people have been killed by police in Philadelphia, 26 of whom were Black, according to a February 2021 brief from Drexel University’s Urban Health Collaborative.
However, even for youth who want to register to vote, a lack of clarity around when they are eligible to register can be an obstacle.
“The reason why we have low voter turnout is because there are barriers that youth face that adults don’t always realize we kind of take it for granted because we’ve been voting for a while in most cases,” Quinn said.
Pennsylvanians can only register to vote at 17 years old if they are 18 on or by the next election, according to the Pennsylvania State Department website.
“But young people have never done it before, so they just simply don’t know the process” Quinn continued. “They haven’t engaged with the candidates because the candidates haven’t engaged with them because there’s low voter turnout.”
Overall, many of Philadelphia’s students are recognizing the power they have in the outcome of the elections.
“For people who are young and will be around for longer than older voters, and for people who are so worried about their future being impacted by an election,” Clark said. “They should be voting and they should be trying to make the things that they want to happen, happen.”
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