Want To Make A Difference In Politics? Talk To Your Friends
“We’ll have random people who will start shouting, ‘Hey, are you registered to vote?!’”
Destiny Guerra, 24, hasn’t always cared about politics. In fact, she only got involved in college. “I really fell in love with the process of politics and democracy,” she says. “I wanted to help others who are also first-generation students, or maybe just don’t know how or where to start.” Since March 2022, she, along with her fellow students in the school’s Center for Community Engagement at the University of Texas, El Paso, have been working to help her fellow students get out the vote.
“I never saw people doing what we do on campus,” Guerra, a senior, says. This year, with the help of a grant from MTV’s Campus Vote Challenge voting project, their group has published voting guides to walk students through the process, put up awareness signs around campus, and even advocated to make their polling place more visible: In 2022, the campus’ polling site was relocated from a dusty, unused corner of campus where students rarely ventured to the school’s Union Building, right at the heart of campus. “Giving that accessibility to students, someone has to fight for that,” Guerra says. She thinks the group’s constant presence reinforces how much they care. “[We’re] not just doing it for work, or for hours. We are there weekly, doing things on different spots on campus. People notice that.”
Every election cycle, there’s much chatter about the power of youth voting — and much pearl-clutching about the supposedly disappointing turnout. Gen Z in particular is an up-and-coming political power, as they age into voting eligibility: Between 2020 and 2022, more than 8 million Gen Zers turned 18 and became eligible to vote, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE), an organization that studies youth voting, at Tufts University. But young voters have (comparatively) low turnout rates: Only around 51% of voters ages 18-24 cast their ballots in 2020, compared to more than three-quarters of those ages 65-74, according to the Census Bureau. And in 2022, just under half of Americans ages 19-29 said they’re “certain” to vote in November, per a Washington Post/ABC poll published in late September.
But that supposed lack of enthusiasm contrasts to what young voting advocates are hearing on their own campuses. “The incoming freshman students — they’re amazing,” says Glenda Bustillo, 22, a junior at University of Texas, El Paso, and another member of the Center for Community Engagement. “They’re actually excited and eager to be involved. They ask you questions. When you tell them, ‘OK, the voting place is on this side [of campus],’ They're like, ‘OK, I'm going there right now!”
While they don’t yet have official numbers for how many people have voted early on their campus in 2022, student ballots cast at UT El Paso have steadily increased over the past few national elections, according to data compiled by the Institute for Democracy and Higher Education at Tufts University and shared with Elite Daily. In the 2020 presidential election, around 12,800 students voted on the school’s campus, a 9% increase in the overall voting rate from those who voted in the 2018 midterms and a 12% increase from votes cast in the 2016 presidential election. “We can see that it has become more accessible to students to vote, with each coming year,” Bustillo says. “The numbers have gone up since 2016, and hopefully they go up this year.”
Young people who think their peers are voting are far more likely to think they’ll also vote.
That’s why student activists like Guerra, Bustillo, and more are working to make voting even more accessible. With convenient voting guides, young voters are less stymied by confusion. With obvious, accessible polling places on campus, working students don’t have to go out of their way to vote — according to 2020 data from MTV and Duke University, around three-quarters of college campuses had no in-person voting access in that year’s presidential election. “Students procrastinate, students are tired,” says Bustillo, speaking for everyone who’s ever found themselves doing 18 credits and trying to schedule time to sleep in their Google calendar. “They will not go out of their way to vote.”
“We’re trying to make it simpler, take away all those little steps they would have to do themselves, and basically do [the logistics] for them,” Guerra adds.
Bustillo thinks a lack of student representation around voting has been another roadblock to participation. When it was only school administrators telling people to go vote, students could be dismissive. But when people hear their friends and classmates being enthusiastic about voting, the mood changes. “It’s like, whoa,” Bustillo says. People tell her things like, “I’m actually interested in that as well, but no one ever told me [about it].” That’s why, she thinks, it’s so important for students to be the ones to start conversations about voting.
According to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, the director at CIRCLE, roadblocks for young voters who want to cast their ballots largely fall into a few big categories: logistics, like how they’ll get to polling places or get time off work or school to vote; regulations around casting their ballots, like access to early voting or whether their state has strict ID requirements; and knowledge barriers, like whether they were taught how to register or the step-by-step of how elections work. “Young people are often hung out to dry, not really knowing how to do [all of] that,” she says.
Kawashima-Ginsberg says it really matters for people to hear their peers advocating for voting. “Young people who think their peers are voting are far more likely to think they’ll also vote,” she says. “Empathy that’s authentic, and is coming from their shared experience … is actually really important. You see that even in young people’s choice of candidate. They want to vote for somebody that can understand where they’re coming from.”
Isaiah Hinzman, 19, agrees that it makes a difference that he knows how other would-be first-time voters feel about an election. “There are a lot of students here who are voting for the first time, just like me,” he says. A sophomore at Eastern Arizona College, a two-year campus in Thatcher, Arizona, which also received an MTV Campus Vote Challenge grant, he started campaigning for early voting on campus in the spring of his freshman year, at the encouragement of his school’s dean. In June 2022, he learned his campus would get a polling place, and began working to register his fellow students at the top of the 2022-2023 year. While he says some students are already enthusiastic and excited, he can also understand concerns from people who are less engaged. One of the biggest things he hears is that his fellow students think their votes won’t count. “I’m like, ‘Well, your vote is not a wasted vote. If you don’t vote, that is your voice being not heard,’” he says. He cast his own ballot by mail, a week before Nov. 8.
Seeing [students] take the initiative as well is so moving and inspiring.
Hinzman thinks that getting his peers to vote can produce a “snowball” effect that can see enthusiastic new voters pick up others and take them to the polls in future years. Research has indicated that voting can, in fact, be habit-forming, and that those who vote in one election are more likely to go on and vote in future. “I think getting people involved to vote now helps them understand the importance of voting, so that later on … they can also help their friends and family,” he says. “I know there are a lot of students who brought people from the community, and their friends on campus, to go and vote as well.”
Guerra has seen the same thing on her campus. “We’ll have random people who will start shouting, ‘Hey, are you registered to vote? They’re registering people to vote right now.’ And I’m like, ‘You are amazing!’ Seeing them take the initiative as well is so moving and inspiring. And we love to see that!”
“The college-based and outside groups that are making a celebration of voting at the polling location have the right mindset,” Kawashima-Ginsberg says. She says creating a sense of fun at polling places — making it something you can go do with your friends — does a lot to make change. “If [I’m] an engaged person, I can convince my five other friends to come because there’s pizza, or there’s ice cream, or there’s a therapy pet. Those are real things that are happening at polling locations.”
Guerra and Bustillo have faith that not only have they made a difference, but they’ve drawn a map for those who come after. “I think our presence, being on campus so much, has improved the voting side a lot,” Guerra says. “There’s so many people who are passionate about this and they just don’t know who to go to. Creating a coalition of students who believe in the same thing that you do, and then advocating together — there’s power in numbers.”