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Youth in Politics: On the Ground in Illinois

March 16th, 2016
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When it comes to understanding youth political engagement, it’s critical to look at both data and dynamics on the ground. As a result, to supplement CIRCLE’s primary and caucus analyses, we are also asking practitioners to provide reflections on their work with youth in a given state. These reflections come from different types of organizations—from news media, to schools, to nonprofits— since building sustainable opportunities for youth engagement requires engagement from multiple sectors using multiple strategies.

Below are reflections from a pair of organizations who worked to engage youth in Illinois ahead of the March 15 primary. While they reflect their perspectives and experiences, not necessarily those of CIRCLE, we want to highlight the important work being done to include young people in the decisions we make as a nation.

Mikva Challenge

In the weeks leading up to the Illinois primary, Mikva Challenge students and teachers have been actively engaged in elections up and down the ticket, making sure that youth voices are heard in a variety of different ways.

  • So You Want to Hold a Voter Registration Drive…This is the second primary election in which Illinois 17-year-olds have been eligible to vote if they will be 18 by the general election, and as a result students at many schools organized voter registration drives to make sure their peers are set to vote. In early February, Mikva supported this work by holding a workshop open to both students AND teachers interested in coming together to learn the basics requirements and deadlines and brainstorm creative ways to inform, encourage and engage their peers in registering and making plans to vote.
  • State’s Attorney Voter Values: At Mikva, we believe that being engaged must go hand in hand with being informed. Following the release of the Laquan McDonald video last November, the race for Cook County State’s Attorney quickly gained national attention, with incumbent Anita Álvarez and challenger Kim Foxx suddenly becoming household names with which many Chicago youth were familiar—even as voters of all ages remained hazy on what exactly the duties and responsibilities of the State’s Attorney actually are. To help teachers engage students in debate and discussion around these responsibilities and which should take priority, we created a lesson and shared it with teachers, along with contact information for all three candidates’ offices so students could get directly involved with the campaign of their chosen candidate.
  • Campaign Wednesdays/Saturdays: Contrary to popular opinion and stereotypes, youth are not apathetic—they’re just uninvited. Expecting youth to find, reach out to, and show up to campaign offices on their own is a lot to put on a young person’s plate, especially if they have no idea what to expect once there. To reduce these barriers, Mikva continued its second year worth of Campaign Wednesdays, a weekly open-house campaign day where students were invited to meet at Mikva after school for pizza and bus cards before heading out in groups to visit different campaign offices. Students’ motivation for attending the first time varied from being very interested in a candidate, to needing service learning hours, to being dragged along by a friend for the pizza, but regardless of which factor got them in the door, each one left with a better idea of what campaigning entails, more info about the candidate, and at least a little less fear of phonebanking and/or canvassing.
  • Voting Early and Often: Registration is one thing, but making sure voters turn out is another. Luckily, the Chicago Board of Elections makes early voting EASY by hosting two weeks of early voting with one location in every ward, and the added bonus that city residents can register and vote at any one of these locations. As a result, increasing numbers of teachers and students partner each year with Mikva, the CPS Office of Civic Engagement and Service Learning, and other civic ed organizations like Chicago Votes to plan and execute early voting field trips that can be as simple as one class walking to the nearby library to vote over lunch or as elaborate as the whole school’s worth of seniors parading to the nearby polls accompanied by the drum corps from their marching band (as Curie HS did last week).

Reclaim Chicago

Reclaim Chicago engaged students from seven campuses across the Chicagoland area in leadership roles leading up to the March 15 Illinois primary. Students were part of the endorsement process and heavily engaged in canvassing for various candidates. The campuses engaged were University of Chicago, Northwestern University, University of Illinois at Chicago, Roosevelt University, Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago State University, and Governor’s State University.

Students on each campus recruited teams of volunteers weekly for 10 weeks, led phone banks and canvasses, trained volunteers, and consistently produced 30% of Reclaim Chicago’s overall canvass and phone bank turnout. This means that, on GOTV weekend alone, Reclaim students produced 75 volunteer shifts, made 10,500 calls, and knocked on 300 doors. Students canvassed on campus as well as in the broader community. On Election Day, four volunteer students ran staging locations without paid staff assistance.

This level of engagement and student leadership was possible because the students were clear on their stake in this election—students lead local issue campaigns which are impacted by who is in office and who the elected officials feel accountable to. Reclaim Chicago and Student Action, the national partner, invest in extensive leadership training and mentorship of students in order to build strong self-sustaining campus bases that get stronger with time, rather than dwindle as leaders graduate. Students associated with Reclaim and the sister 501c4 organization, The People’s Lobby, have been involved in non-presidential primary work in Chicago for the past three years, and their engagement has only grown over time. Now many of those same students are working for elected officials and on a path to running for office, themselves. Furthermore, what Reclaim students have built is a model for Student Action across the country. For the 2016 general election, we plan to engage students in similar work on down-ballot races as well as the presidential race in at least seven states, driving enthusiasm no matter who the presidential candidates are.

Find more analysis in our 2016 Election Center. For regular updates in your Inbox about youth and the 2016 election, sign up for CIRCLE's monthly E-Update here.

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