Valley Voices

Young voters are ready to make a difference in Tuesday’s election

California Secretary of State Alex Padilla meets Parlier High School students during a 2015 visit to Fresno County as part of High School Voter Education Week. More than 200 students were on hand to listen to the secretary, who spoke on voter registration and the role young people can play in shaping the future through civic participation.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla meets Parlier High School students during a 2015 visit to Fresno County as part of High School Voter Education Week. More than 200 students were on hand to listen to the secretary, who spoke on voter registration and the role young people can play in shaping the future through civic participation. Fresno Bee file

As a college freshman and youth organizer in the Central Valley, I am hopeful about the interest and excitement I see in young people about Tuesday’s election.

But I’m also worried. I grew up in the Hmong community, and we make up a large part of the local population. Like other people of color, we are dealing with racism and discrimination all the time. We see students like us facing harsher discipline in schools. We see our families dealing with problems finding jobs, getting affordable health care, and other basic support. I know we won’t be able to change any of that unless we step up, speak out and vote.

Eugene Vang
Eugene Vang of Merced is helping register young voters for Tuesday’s election. Contributed

That is why, as a youth leader and organizer with 99Rootz, I am working with Power California to reach out to 13,000 young people in the Central Valley — and more than 100,000 statewide. We are registering young people to vote, and we are making sure they go to the polls.

Many of my Hmong elders have never voted; they don’t know how. That may be true in a lot of immigrant and refugee families who may have not been able to vote and are therefore unable to pass that knowledge and power to their children. But my generation is ready to change that. Thanks to groups like 99Rootz, who are focused on uplifting and investing in young people, we’re learning how to be a voice for our communities. From the volunteer work I did while in high school and this past summer registering my peers, friends, and other young people, I know youth are excited about using our voices and about voting.

We are not alone. Power California recently surveyed more than 2,000 young people across the state and found that our generation thinks voting is important. In fact, 82 percent said voting actually makes a difference.

That old idea that young people aren’t engaged and can’t be bothered to go out and vote is done. From what I see, our generation really cares about the future of our communities and our country. We want to be involved in solving problems that affect our families, and we believe in the power of speaking up and having our say.

So how do we explain the statistics showing that young people actually don’t vote, or at least not in numbers that match our percent of the population? The truth is, there are many reasons for this. First, our system creates too many barriers to voting. Almost six out of 10 young people in the Power California survey said the rules for voting in this country are too restrictive.

A second reason why young people usually don’t show up to vote in big numbers is that we’re ignored by candidates, campaigns and social movements. They look at who has voted in previous elections, and they target their ads, emails and all their other outreach at those groups. If you are a young person of color, you’re ignored even more. In the Power California poll, young white voters were more likely to say they have been contacted by a candidate, a political campaign, or another voter-outreach group than young black, Latino and Asian American voters. This is true even though 70 percent of 16-to-24-year-olds in California are people of color.

Ignoring young people at election time, and particularly young people of color, is a big mistake. If you speak honestly to young people about the issues we care about, and if you reach out to us directly and engage us in your campaigns, we can be a powerful ally.

Young people are already doing a lot to show our commitment to being engaged and involved. We are connecting with peers from across the country to tackle urgent problems like school safety. We are turning elections in Florida, New York and beyond. And we are educating ourselves and each other about how we can become the best leaders for future generations.

“Peb cov tub ntxhais hluas muaj peev xwm los mus pab peb lub zej zog kom muaj txoj kev noj qab nyob zoo.” In Hmong, this means “We, the youth, have the power to help and invest in our community to achieve wellness and happiness.”

I am so eager to be voting for the first time in the midterms. Young people have the power to help and invest in our community to achieve wellness and happiness. Voting is the next step in our generation’s journey to empowerment and leadership — and this November we are ready to take it. Encourage everyone to go vote on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

Eugene Vang grew up in Merced. He is a freshman at the University of California San Diego and an organizer with 99Rootz.

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