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Hear Directly From Students: Election 2020

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2020 has been a historic and tumultuous year. This November, local, state and national elections will provide millions of young people the opportunity to elect the government best suited to meet this extraordinary moment. As part of a special election youth town hall, PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs (SRL) reached out to its student network to find out how young people feel about our democracy: its fairness, its faults, and how they would like to see it operate if they were in charge. SRL received more than 100 submissions from students. This blog features students from Wauwatosa East High School in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin; Youth Beat in Oakland, California; Westwood High School in Austin, Texas; and T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. 

Many young voters are gearing up for the 2020 election, with growing numbers of Generation Z becoming eligible, and eager to vote. 

According to a recent Harvard poll, the number of Americans aged 18-29 who say they will “definitely” vote in the upcoming election has climbed from 47% in 2016 to 63% in 2020. 

Through a special election curriculum, PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs gathered perspectives from students across the country on what voting and democracy looks like for them. With the Covid-19 pandemic, an economic downturn and racial injustice movements dominating their world, many young people are eager to use their ballot as a way to enact change. 

Michela Miller from Wauwatosa East High School in Wisconsin, is a first-time voter this year. In a video diary, she described her excitement about voting for the first time and playing her part in democracy.

“I'm really excited to see how my generation changes the outcomes of the election, because I think that there is a really interesting shift between my generation and my age of voters than in the past,” she said.

Miller said the level of “toxicity” she sees in the political climate of today is disappointing, because it takes away space from the important political conversations that should be happening. 

“We have the opportunity to change so many things and if we don't, there will be irreversible damage happening to our environment, to rights of LGBTQ, women and minority groups,” she said.

Other students echoed the importance of voting when it comes to maintaining human rights. 

Samantha Ivey, who attends Youth Beat, a media training program in Oakland, California, said that politics affect our everyday lives, and that it’s important to recognize the role of voting in how people are impacted.

“If you refuse to vote, you are responsible for the hardships of many. Of many who cannot vote due to voter suppression, people who aren’t old enough, or convicts,” she said. “This is the one time we are given a voice.”

Ivey said the role of young voters is especially important for their own futures, because they are inheriting a “messed up” world that will be theirs to fix.

“I know the country feels like it’s falling apart, and it’s so easy to see ourselves as outsiders. To criticize the United States. But now, when you become 18, this country is partly your responsibility,” she said. “This nation is still my home, and it’s our job to save it.”

Onivid Garzon from Youth Beat in Oakland, California, said in a self-conducted interview that her inability to vote made her want to stay away from politics at first. But her growing worries about the injustices against Black people, people of color and immigrants in America changed that.

“I hate not being able to change a corrupt system that has many victims at its feet,” she said.

Even though it’s painful for her to feel like she can’t make a difference, Garzon said she will still work to raise awareness about those injustices so that those who can vote will know about them.

Being underage has caused some students to feel limited in terms of what impact they can directly make on the country, but that doesn’t let Aman Tewari, who attends Westwood High School in Austin, Texas stop him from engaging in other methods that can still create a footprint in his community. 

“I think I’m fine with not being able to be eligible to vote because I engage with the political process and other ways, both through social media and through volunteering for local campaigns,” Tewari said. 

Being involved with the political process outside of voting is important to Tewari, especially when the next elected leaders will determine the direction our country goes during a time revolving around uncertainties from COVID-19 and maintaining democracy.

“Not only does the president and local officials elected this year get to control the COVID-response and how our country is going to recover from the pandemic, but also they get to control the future of these movements as well as any changes that were going to be made through, like social justice movements,” Tewari said. “What that means is setting a precedent for the future of America and how these movements will affect policy at a national and local level.”

Similar to Tewari, Jeffrey Guevara at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia is one of the many who are eager to exercise his right to vote, especially since he is eligible to vote a month before the deadline to cast a ballot. Guevara’s emphasis on the importance of voting is strongly motivated by the role of young people in pushing the election towards a future that makes all generations feel that they are capable of changing this country for the better.

“I would just stress the fact… that the youth and their votes and efforts are the make or breaking point of the election,” Guevara said. “We are tomorrow… everything that we do is what’s going to become the future of this country.”

He also encourages young people to not undermine the endless possibilities of change they can enact and truly understand their importance for the upcoming election. 

“Their vote matters just as much as anybody else,” Guevara said. “They’re the most important part of this effort.”

Use the following questions to start a discussion with your students. 

  • How have COVID-19 and the recent movements for social and racial justice affected your view of this election? 
  • How do local candidates engage youth in your community? How do state or national ones? If they don’t, why do you think this is the case? How would you engage young people if you were running for office?
  • Are you enthusiastic about any candidates that are running for 2020, especially local ones? What about a candidate or campaign makes you enthusiastic? 
  • Do you think voting and our democracy are fair? Why or why not? What would you change if you were in charge?
  • What issues should candidates focus on to engage young people specifically? What issues would you focus on if you were running for office?
  • How do you feel about the voting age being 18? 
  • Do you feel personally connected to any of your elected officials or 2020 candidates? If yes, why? If not, what kind of candidate would you like to see run for office?
  • In 2020, what does democracy mean to you? 

To hear more from Gen Z voters ahead of Election 2020 and learn how to combat election misinformation, watch SRL’s interactive virtual town hall featuring host Amna Nawaz, senior national correspondent and primary substitute anchor for the PBS NewsHour.

Grace Vitaglione and Hannah Lee

Grace Vitaglione and Hannah Lee PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs intern

Grace Vitaglione is a junior at American University and PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs intern. Hannah Lee is a sophomore at New York University and PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs intern.

PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs (SRL) is a national youth journalism program that started with six pilot sites in 2009. Now in over 165 schools, SRL trains teenagers across the country to produce stories that highlight the achievements, challenges, and reality of today’s youth. SRL creates transformative educational experiences through video journalism that inspire students to find their voice and engage in their communities.

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