For 18-year-olds across America, registering to vote is a rite of passage, one of the first acts they can take as legal adults.
There are certainly many reasons teens don’t vote, ranging from convenience to apathy to frustration with the political system. But for some civically-engaged Kentucky youths, their first brush with voting is an exciting experience — even if they miss the age cutoff for casting a ballot that year.
State estimates say nearly 60 percent of Kentucky voters turned out for the 2016 general election. But those aged 17 to 24 were the second-to-least likely age group to vote, beating out only 25-to-34-year-olds, per the State Board’s unofficial counts.
Students who go through the Jefferson County Public Schools system learn about voting and civics through their social studies classes, said Ryan New, the social studies instructional lead for the district. He said those classes should educate students in civic literacy, skills and disposition.
“We expect our students to be able to go out and engage civically in their lives,” New said. “It might be to be involved in their communities, to be able to be voters, to have civil discussions about politics.”
For this installment of The Next Louisville, we spoke with three current and former JCPS students about why they are passionate about voting and civic engagement. All three have been participants in civic engagement programs through the Kentucky YMCA Youth Association. Get to know them in their own words by listening and reading below.
Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Meghan Sharma, 18-year-old Louisville native and freshman pre-medical student at the University of Kentucky
Meghan Sharma is the daughter of immigrants — from India and Canada — who describes herself as “geeky” about voting. This spring, she voted for the first time, in the primary election. Sharma mailed in her absentee ballot for the Nov. 6 midterm election and is a Democrat.
On voting for the first time:
“I turned 18 January 31st, so I actually was able to vote in my primary, which was really exciting. So I voted, technically, but this will be my first general. I was kind of geeky about it. I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ I was so excited to go to my Barrytown Community Rec Center. I showed up, I definitely was the most excited. Everyone else was like, ‘What are you doing?’ So the way I bubbled in my sheet, I accidentally made one error when I was bubbling and they were like, ‘OK, here’s a new ballot.’ I was a little embarrassed but it went fine. Then I got to turn it in and see them punch it. I thought it was really cool. You know how in ‘The Breakfast Club’ there’s that one character and they’re like, ‘Why do you need a fake I.D.?’ and he’s like, ‘To vote’? I’ve always kind of felt like that, so it was really exciting for me.”
On how her teachers taught her how to understand political issues:
“I don’t think you necessarily need to be political to vote. I think when people talk about why older people are more likely to vote than young people, it’s felt like maybe in the past we didn’t feel the weight of elections as much. But I think especially in high school when the Parkland shooting happened, we all kind of felt like it could happen to us, even locally in Marshall County. It didn’t feel foreign to us. I’m not a parent, I’m not a property-owner, I’ve never really paid taxes, those aren’t issues that I’ve ever felt directly impacted by. But we’ve all felt impacted by school violence, we’ve all felt impacted by the stuff that’s going on with public schools in our state now, we’ve all felt impacted by college tuition. These are all issues that we are able to recognize and understand and I just think in a classroom setting we’re able to understand more of why they matter.
“In high school when you have more politically-based discussion, I think teachers always left opinions to the class, which I think was important. But I always just trusted them to never mislead me or direct me toward a certain belief but rather just think they felt were core important, so just voting or just engaging regardless of who you’re voting for.
“Even if I might not agree with a lot of other people, it’s important to recognize that they have a right to those beliefs. I think that’s the biggest thing I took out of those government classroom settings.The idea behind democracy isn’t that you’re going to vote one way or another, but rather that you’re voting in general. I think that the fact that they left these discussions up to us and didn’t say, ‘I believe this because of this,’ but rather just say, ‘This is what one person believes, this is what another person believes, up to you,’ just allowed us to be more engaged and actually understand something based on fact rather than the fake news thing that we hear today.”
On feeling civically empowered:
“We all can feel the weight of political decisions. I think in this incredibly polarized time we live in, we might feel it moreso. I think people in my age range, we feel even more engaged now than we might have before just because of all this political talk about whether young people have a voice in government. I think those of us who are voting age and those of us who aren’t, we even feel more empowered to want to do something, whether that be protest or talking or even voting, it’s really just a desire to want to be a part of something.
“Parkland students made a real incredible national impact. Locally, I’m involved with the Y. That has a really big state network, and Marshall County is a part of that. I think seeing the Marshall County shooting happening made it feel the closest to home for a lot of us. I think just seeing students organizing in general, whether it be locally or nationally, it does push you to want to do something. A lot of times, young people not being engaged comes from this idea of youth not being something that can translate to action. But seeing young people doing incredible stuff, wherever it be, I think pushes people to want to do more. And voting might be the first step to that, but there’s so much more than people can do and should do that that sort of pushes them to do, whether activism or volunteering or anywhere in between.”
Zion Smith, 17-year-old senior at Seneca High School with political aspirations and a passion for policy
Zion Smith is the president of his school’s student government and is in the pre-law program. He won’t be able to vote this year, but is passionate about getting his peers to vote and to become informed citizens. He describes himself as a political independent.
On his career goals:
“I was born in Louisville, Kentucky. We were homeless. We moved to New Albany, Indiana. Again, we were in Section 8 housing, so when we actually moved back over here, I went to Highland Middle for my 8th Grade year and then I transferred to Noe Middle. I was still kind of in that arena as where we didn’t have a lot of money, we were on food stamps. I’m kind of still in that situation, but it has improved. So, I always knew since 6th grade that I wanted be a politician, I wanted to run for president, for senator, for governor, for mayor. I always had that aspiration and those ambitions, so that kind of kept me steady through my entire life, that I can work for something, I can strive to be it and I can actually accomplish it. No matter what I went through, being homeless, not having a lot of food, I still managed to keep those goals intact.”
On learning about political power:
“My English teacher, Miss Scott, she had on the presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I kind of found it interesting as soon as she put it on, like, ‘Why are you putting on debates?’ So I studied more about Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. And so I kind of got this understanding that one was a senator, one was a governor. But who actually had more power to actually affect something? And of course the governor did, for their state. I’m always about change, and I know, really, change can only come if you have power in some way or form. I remember asking my math teacher, Miss Spitznagel, which position had more power, the Secretary of State or the Vice President. So I kind of just got that grasp, and I just ran with it. My principal, she actually introduced me to the City Council president of New Albany and he actually gave me a gavel that was signed by him.
“It was pretty great because it was the day of my birthday, December 7, so it was very special. I got to talk to him in front of my class, got to take photos. I was thankful and I will actually never forget that moment, because it really sparked my interest in politics.”
On why action is essential:
“Protesting is great to just get the issue out there, but if you’re not calling your representative or your senator to actually change a law, then it’s not going to happen.
“If you don’t vote, then you don’t have a right to say anything, really. If you’re not voting, then why should you comment on our democratic process? If you’re not actually trying to change it, then really what voice do you have? I’m just trying to be real, because people like to talk about politics but either, A, half the stuff they’re saying is really not true or, B, they don’t do anything to try to change it. Just advocating, just going around the school or going around the neighborhood just saying something to your neighbors is a good way to start. But if you’re not actually trying to change the process, then you’re no better than a person that’s just talking about it and not doing a damn thing about it.”
Forest Clevenger, 17-year-old senior at duPont Manual High School, experienced with political campaigns
Forest Clevenger is a music major at duPont Manual High School, but lately he has spent lots of time outside school working for Mayor Greg Fischer’s reelection campaign. He will be too young to vote in this year’s election but considers himself to be very civically engaged. He is a Democrat.
On interning for Fischer:
“I really got started on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. My parents took me out there in 2008, and they’ve got little pictures of seven year old me holding signs on Bardstown Road. Went out and did that again in 2016, then it’s just going out and volunteering on all sorts of campaigns, but really the mayor’s campaign, that’s where it’s at, for me.
“I started off as volunteer. I am a field specialist. What that means is really everyone does just about everything from time to time. Most of my time though is just texting youth being like, ‘Hey, can you be at this event? Can you come do this?’ Yesterday it was assembling yard signs in the office. Got through probably hundreds of those. It was a lot of fun. Sunday it was out canvassing and Saturday, as well, it’s knocking on doors or might be phone calling. It might be working a fundraiser, it never ends. And I love it.”
On people making excuses not to vote:
“I don’t think my parents voted in the past gubernatorial election. And I’ve given them a lot of crap about that. They should have voted. I told them to go out and vote that day and they thought it was fine. And of course, it was not, as we’ve seen, and I hope that resonates with everyone.
“Elections can come down to single digits. They frequently do, especially when you’re talking about the house races, which is going to be extremely important for this upcoming election and determining what Frankfort looks like. Everyone needs to get out and vote. Canvassing with the Mayor’s campaign, any campaign, you might meet a couple hundred strangers every single week. And you hear all sorts of answers about everything, including why people don’t vote. And sometimes you get that people think their votes don’t matter. Well, if it’s a presidential election, I mean, I can’t tell you that your votes going to make a difference, especially in Kentucky because of how the winner takes all in the Electoral College. But it matters down ballot, your vote will make a difference.”
On how to figure out if you can trust a politician:
“Go talk to your representative, go page for them. Shoot them an email, I would say ask them if you can get involved on your campaign, but you should probably go ahead and learn about them more. So go to forums. I promise you, your Metro Council people and, if you have a good state representative, they’re having forums. Just go talk with them and see what it’s about. And it is hard because it’s journalists’ job to really tell what’s going on. There’s that media buffer between elected officials and the people because that’s the only practical way to do it, but it’s hard unless you do sit down across the table from someone and talk to them, look them in the eyes and really judge if they mean what they’re saying.
“They should be listening to us because the decisions being made right now are going to impact the rest of my life. That’s what it is.They’re going to be dead by the time their decisions come to fruition, and they need to be listening to us and having our input if that’s what’s going to be making an impact in our lives.”
Featured image by J. Tyler Franklin
The Next Louisville project is a collaboration between WFPL News and the Community Foundation of Louisville. For more work from the project, click here.