Rachel Black ’16 was teaching 10th grade students at Providence’s E-Cubed Academy about voter registration last October when one student, eyes wide with terror, asked, “If I fill out this form, will they force me to vote?”
Black, who is one of four chapter directors at Brown for Generation Citizen — a nonpartisan, nonprofit student group that teaches hands-on civic engagement skills in Providence classrooms — said the incident alerted her to high school students’ limited knowledge of democratic processes. The experience spurred her to reach out to Rebecca Mears ’15, a member of the Brown Democrats and president of the College Democrats of Rhode Island.
Since March, Black and Mears have worked with other student groups, organizing a concerted effort to get Providence high school students ready for voting in the November elections.
In the spirit of bipartisanship, volunteers from Generation Citizen, Common Sense Action, the Brown Democrats and the Brown Republicans are organizing voter registration drives from April 28 to May 2 at the Met Equality School, the Juanita Sanchez Educational Complex and E-Cubed Academy to demystify the voting process.
Many high school students underestimate how simple it is to register to vote, Mears said. In Rhode Island, voter pre-registration can start as early as the age of 16, at which time students can fill out a one-page registration form. From there, Brown volunteers drop off completed forms to the local Board of Canvassers, Mears said. Voter identification, while required at the ballot box, is not necessary to register.
Youth voter turnout is among the lowest of any demographic in national elections, said Tim Schlenger ’16, president of the Brown chapter of Common Sense Action, a bipartisan grassroots organization focused on mobilizing youth toward political action. Student leaders said bringing personable, passionate advocates for voter registration means encouraging and empowering youth voices in political dialogue.
Voting would bring high school students “a megaphone” to voice issues that are salient to young people, Schlenger said.
One important factor in encouraging high school students to vote is the “near-peer” relationship between high school students and college students, Black said. The small age difference between the two groups means high schoolers see college students as accessible, authentic role models.
Black said she hopes that by inspiring students to register to vote now, she can encourage them to think critically about politics until the November elections.
While voter registration drives have been held at the University in the past, the joint effort with Generation Citizen has opened a new avenue to engaging younger voters. This collaboration marks the first time the Brown Democrats, Brown Republicans and CSA have all worked together with Generation Citizen to reach out to high school students, student leaders said.
Mears said the project has helped “break down the barriers” between groups allowing them to work together without being limited by their political affiliations.
“I think we both share a common passion for politics,” said Justin Braga ’16, president of the Brown Republicans and president of the College Republicans of Rhode Island. “Even though we may have different opinions on issues, I think that passion for public service is what unites us in the end.”
The voter registration drive is an experiment for Generation Citizen, Black said, adding that she hopes this effort signals a shift toward partnering with other on-campus organizations for future endeavors.
Mears said she wants to prove that high school students can become excited about voting and would register if they had the means to do so. She said she looks forward to the moment when she can look across a crowd of informed, enthused high school students and say, “Oh, I’m sorry, could you wait two minutes? We don’t have enough pens — there are too many people signing up to vote.”