COMMENTARY: Young voters are doing us proud. Can we do the same for them?

BY MICHELLE CASTILLO

There is so much talk this year about young people and the election. Following massive youth mobilizations against gun violence, analysts and commentators have no shortage of opinions about the role of the rising American electorate. Will they actually show up to vote? Will it make a difference? From what this long-time advocate can tell, young people are indeed showing up and ready to change the face of power in this state and country.

Over the past several months, I’ve encountered hundreds of young people more fired up about midterm elections, or any election, than I’ve ever seen them in my eight years of civic engagement work. Since the students who survived the horrible, terroristic act in Parkland, Florida last February launched the March for Our Lives campaign, voter registration among 18- to 29-year-olds has surged. And, according to an August NBC/Gen Forward poll, 55 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds then said they plan to vote this November. In Texas, the youth vote is already blowing past expectations with an increase of 500 percent voters among 18- to 29-year-olds.

Even young people who won’t be of age are getting engaged. I’ve met high schoolers who are pitching in as poll workers, or working on issue campaigns to get out the vote even though they can’t vote this year. They understand how high the stakes are. They understand the importance of free and fair elections as too few adults seem to. For them, for our youth and children who aren’t eligible to vote, it’s our responsibility to show up on Tuesday.

When I drive voters to the polls on Tuesday, I’ll be envisioning Texas’ next election, thinking about how we can improve that experience for all voters. It’s clear that in states where election rules encourage participation, like Minnesota or Oregon, voter turnout is significantly higher. In states like Texas — with complicated, ever-changing rules that end up turning citizens away — participation is lower, and therefore the results are less representative of what we, the people, want.

In Texas, where the battle over who can vote can seem endless, young voters easily fall prey to political posturing that undermines our most fundamental freedom. We can’t let young people feel let by a system that doesn’t hear their voices. From simplifying the voter registration process to modernizing our voting machines, a serious state commitment to a fair and accessible election must be a priority in the coming state legislative session.

But that’s not all.

We know that voting becomes a habit when young people have a strong foundation of civic responsibility. The Children’s Defense Fund Texas and our partners are strengthening that in Texas by encouraging more schools to integrate project or action-based civic education in the classroom. Some schools are already supporting this effort by teaching the basics of civic engagement like how to vote to high school students. And we want to support them with the resources to do more.

I’m inspired by the young people already leading a movement and mobilizing their generation to make our democracy stronger. On this Election Day and beyond, it is up to all of us to show up and hold Texas accountable to the ideals of our grand democratic experiment.

Michelle Castillo is the youth and civic engagement coordinator at the Children’s Defense Fund Texas.