Ryan Drysdale, Regional Program Coordinator for Inspire U.S., describes his experience in having high school students register to vote online.
“Seriously, we have to be paying attention as a generation and have our voices heard.” All eyes shift from the impassioned high school senior finishing her response during the class' weekly current events discussion session as the teacher beckons me into the classroom from the hallway. The teacher gracefully mediates the palatable tension in the room by segueing to my presence. “We have a timely guest speaker about your generation’s voice today. We’ll pick up on the rest of the current event topics tomorrow,” as he points to the various issues written on the whiteboard in different handwriting.
I’m scheduled to speak to eight junior and senior classes at ThunderRidge High School in Douglas County, Colorado about the mission of Inspire Colorado to amplify the voice of the youngest generation of our voters through non-partisan voter registration and voter engagement. For the first time in Inspire Colorado history, we plan to register students through their cellphones. Our goal in amplifying their voices in our civic spaces requires that we meet young people where they are in the digital world.
I give my well-rehearsed pitch telling the class that on average only 20% of 18-20 year olds regularly vote. I then ask them which generation has more eligible voters: our generation, our parents’ generation, or our grandparents’ generation. As I expect, they guess the two older generations before shocked gasps unveil their surprise when I tell them that there are more 18-33 year olds who can vote than any other age-based generation.
I ask them to raise their hands if they feel like our generation’s voices are heard by elected officials. I’ve learned to stop asking the question twice. At first I thought they didn’t understand the question. Now I realize, in 95% of my classroom presentations, not a single student raises their hands. I ask them why they feel that way and usually a voice in the back chirps up, “Because we don’t vote enough.”
“Let’s change that then,” I say as I instruct them to pull out their cellphones. Many give me confused looks. I walk around passing out business cards with a phone number on it. I tell them to text the word “Register” to that number. A link to register to vote online is quickly sent to their phones. In about seven minutes, 28 students are now registered to vote since Colorado law allows 16 and 17 year olds to pre-register to vote. By the end of the day, 207 students have used their cellphones or classroom computers to register to vote or pledge to vote if they were already registered. Schools that have 85% of eligible seniors registered to vote earn an award from the Colorado Secretary of State’s office.
As I cede the classroom back to their teacher who is still checking out the online registration link on his phone, I ask one final question, “How many of you will vote when you turn 18 and there is an election?” Much to my pleasure, I see the exact opposite scene from my earlier question and see a classroom filled with raised hands. I smile and head out the door to the next classroom hoping for another transformation of students’ views on their political power.
At Inspire Colorado, we are on the cutting edge of high school civic engagement partnering with schools, county and state governments, and civil society organizations to amplify the voice of a generation by increasing youth voter turnout.