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NJ High School Students Focus Energy, Efforts on Registering to Vote

Gun-control protests have taught students they have a voice that will be heeded. Now they are funneling their drive into civic engagement

student voters
Credit: Sean Conlon
Day 2 of the #myvoicemyvotenj registration drive going strong in Cresskill.

New Jersey high school students are working to add their names to the voter rolls this week in a mass effort to increase civic engagement among young people, following their demonstrations in favor of gun control.

A total of 45 schools across the state are taking part in a robust voter registration campaign between April 30 and May 11, maintaining the impetus of social activism spurred by the tragic shooting at a high school in Parkland, FL. The campaign, #MyVoiceMyVoteNJ, was coordinated by the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, League of Women Voters of New Jersey, and New Jersey Social Studies Supervisors Association but organized and staffed by students in each high school.

Ryan Griffin, a senior at Waldwick High School and organizer of his school’s drive, said the registration campaign was a natural outgrowth of the gun-control walkouts and March for Our Lives movement, but he stressed that #MyVoiceMyVoteNJ is a nonpartisan effort.

“We think young people should have a say in what's going on in this country,” Griffin said.

Empowering younger voters

In New Jersey, individuals can register at age 17 but cannot vote in any election until they are 18. However, noting that youth voter turnout has reached historic lows in recent years, the Assembly just approved the New Voter Empowerment Act, last month, which would allow 17-year-olds to vote in a primary election provided they will turn 18 before the general election. That bill is poised to be considered by the full Senate for a floor vote.

Griffin and other members of his school’s “student voice” club said they have registered about 20 people so far but have educated many more.

student voters
From left: Ryan Griffin, Gabby Romano, Kasey Serafin

Kasey Serafin, a junior at Waldwick, said although she’s not currently old enough to vote, “in a couple of years we're going to be voting for our president … we should care, and we will have a voice in the matter.”

Boosting civic engagement

Several of the Parkland shooting survivors have been fighting to maintain media attention and turn the national student activism movement into something more permanent. Now, students and educators in New Jersey are using that momentum to boost civic engagement.

Patricia Wright, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association said the movement is inspiring.

“The most important place where the voice is truly heard as a citizen is in the voting booth,” Wright said.

She met with the League of Women Voters and the Social Studies Supervisors Association in March, following the student-organized walkouts. Wright quickly came up with a banner design and slogan #MyVoiceMyVoteNJ and began recruiting schools to sign up. Those banners were donated to participating schools along with #MyVoiceMyVote wristbands and access to voter registration forms and educational materials.

So far, 45 schools are participating in this week’s campaign but Wright said more are expected to get on board for a second version in the fall.

However, the new laws about automatic voter registration are throwing some unexpected monkey wrenches into the plan.

Gov. Phil Murphy recently signed legislation that would allow residents to get the option to register to vote when they go to any motor vehicle agency for a driver’s license, renewal, or permit. Wright said the new law is a positive move for the state as a whole, but may mean big voter registration events like #MyVoiceMyVoteNJ could be less effective as students simply sign up when they go for their permit or license.

Yet the rise of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft, as well as skyrocketing gas prices, mean getting a driver’s license is not always top-of-mind for many students. (A recent study by the University of Michigan found that fewer Americans — millennials in particular — are getting their licenses at all.)

Raising questions

Sean Conlon, a social studies teacher at Cresskill High School, said the campaign is also doing much more than just getting kids signed up.

“The thing that has been cool for me to see is we're getting a lot of students asking questions about the process that they wouldn’t have asked if it was just in a government class,” Conlon said. “It’s opening up opportunities for conversations around voting and what that process is like and what role they should play in it. It’s very personal and they’re thinking through it a bit more.”

Conlon said most of the students — even those who had already registered or were too young to sign up this week — raised questions about item number 10 on the form: political party affiliation.

They see options facing them to declare their party affiliation and they realize “they have to make that decision in real time,” Conlon said. He added that the student organizers engage with their peers to explain that while they don’t have to declare Democrat or Republican right that second, they will have to choose a party in order to vote in the primary.

“That conversation carries over to class,” Conlon said. He added that most of the teenagers said they didn’t want to be stuck with one party or the other. They wanted to maintain their independence, “which is a very teenage thing to do.”

“You can see it click in a student's head,” Conlon said “One student blurted out, ‘that's so stupid.’ It was real and authentic and it led to a conversation. I asked ‘well what could we do about that?’ We discussed how we could change the laws and that not every state does it like New Jersey.”

Bringing diverse groups together

Risa Clay, principal at Red Bank Regional High School, said the voter registration campaign has also been a great educational resource at her school, as well as a way to bring diverse groups of people together. She said the students worked with Marisol Mondaca, a bilingual clinician in the high school’s youth services program, to not only go from classroom to classroom registering their peers but also motivating them to actually exercise their right to vote.

“Automatically getting voter rights is great as long as you actually go out and vote. Now, perhaps kids will actually go out and vote,” Clay said.

Clay said one reason that students might be more likely to participate is that they’re engaging with peers who look like them and share their everyday concerns. She said she was struck by the fact that it wasn’t just the usual student council representatives getting involved, but kids of all ages and interests.

“This a really great cross section of kids,” Clay said. “It’s definitely a much more diverse group.”

Conlon said at Cresskill, the students are making a concerted effort to staff their signup tables with individuals from varying political and socioeconomic backgrounds.

“They were very mindful of it being nonpartisan. They make sure that they are very perceptive of their identities in school and how they come across,” Conlon said. “If a student is seen as super liberal, they make sure to have a student who is not seen as super liberal sitting at the table with them answering questions.”

Kasey Serafin said that although the Parkland shooting and desire for gun-control laws motivated many at her school, getting her peers registered to vote is all about giving them the tools to make their voice heard.

“We're not telling people to vote for or against any issue but we're giving them at least the option,” she said. “As young kids, we want to be able to contribute to something like this and make a difference in the community.”

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