After chanting ‘vote them out,’ will the students vote?

Historically, young people have not turned out to vote in big numbers.

The crowds of people that flooded Pennsylvania Avenue have gone home. The kids who chanted “vote them out” and “never again” have returned to their high school math classes or, if they’re lucky, gone on spring break.

And the question now — seven months before the midterm elections and two years before the 2020 presidential election — is whether the passion and vitriol on display at venues throughout the country last week will stick.

Will the same energy that motivated half a million people to descend on D.C. — and at least many to gather elsewhere — translate to policy changes or electoral victories?

We’re at least seven months from knowing even a partial answer to that question, but those who attended the march in Washington say they’re determined to see this through.

Sammy Caruso, 16, an Oakwood High School sophomore, is two years away from casting his first vote in an election, but the Dayton-area student said he is already organizing another rally on April 20 to commemorate the anniversary of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School.

“We want to turn all this energy and passion into real change,” Caruso said.

Alex Bihari is hopeful too. He’s a senior at Thomas Worthington High School, near Columbus, who, like Caruso, attended the march in D.C. When he goes to the polls for the first time this year, Bihari said he’ll vote on guns, immigrants and refugees — and how candidates stand on President Donald Trump.

“If someone is on the payroll of the NRA and gun lobby, that’s a deal-breaker for me,” he said. “If someone is not willing help refugees and immigrants, that’s deal-breaker for me. If someone supports Donald Trump, that’s a deal-breaker for me.”

Difficult hurdle

Young people rallying for change is not a new concept, as college campuses have long been a hotbed for protests and public demonstrations. But as impressive as last week’s gathering might have been, the hard work may be just beginning.

“It’s really hard after you’ve channeled that energy and excitement to keep it sustained,” said one D.C. Republican who has worked with young activists. “It’s fun to go march with tons of people and yell and scream. But it’s not a lot of fun to go door-knocking on a Wednesday night when it’s kind of cold and windy.”

Just showing up at the polls has been a difficult hurdle for many young people to overcome, though 2016 saw a small uptick from the previous presidential election.

According to the United States Election Project, 43.4 percent of voters between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in 2016 — up from 40.9 percent in 2012.

But that group represents a smaller percentage than those in other age groups. Nearly 57 percent of those aged 30-44 voted and 71.4 percent of those over 60 voted.

In off-year elections, like this one, the millennial vote is even less dependable. In the 2014 election, voters 18-29 made up just 13 percent of the national electorate.

Empowering students

Of course, just because young people haven’t voted in big numbers in most past elections doesn’t mean it won’t happen in the future. Young people were credited with helping Democrat Barack Obama win the presidency in 2008, as more than two-thirds of those who voted cast ballots for the nation’s first African-American president.

Some believe the Parkland school shooting will provide a similar motivating power.

Many at the D.C. march seemed resigned to the notion that officeholders won’t change their mind on gun control measures. Better, they argued, to change the occupants of those offices.

Even the signs reflected that.

“Grab ‘em by the midterms,” read one.

“See you in November,” read another.

“I’m joining whatever political party those kids in Florida just started,” read a third.

Aaron Ghitelman of HeadCount, a nonpartisan organization that works with musicians to promote participation in democracy, said his group registered 4,800 voters nationwide over a 10-hour period on Saturday. That figure did not include any voter registrations conducted on the internet, he said.

In the days following the march, HeadCount released a tool kit aimed at helping young people run voter registration drives.

“The idea is, and the goal — which isn’t that crazy because a lot of schools are doing it — is to make sure we have 90 percent of America’s high schools hosting voter registration drives in some capacity, be it on paper or laptop,” Ghitelman said.

He emphasized that the group is nonpartisan, aimed simply “to empower students and get out of the way.”

True test

Although some publicly expressed opposition to the march — and in some cases even to the marchers — the event was seen as a rare coming together of young people over a common cause.

“I think regardless of what you think about the issue, it certainly is exciting to see young people being listened to,” said Abby Kiesa, director of impact at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. “You’ve got to think it’s having an influence on other young people on whether or not they think their voice matters.”

Older voters, too, could be taken in, Kiesa said, calling it a “trickle-up” effect.

But like others, she said the true test will be whether the energy holds.

Richard Aborn, who was the chief strategist behind the 1994 ban on assault weapons and the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act — which mandated federal background checks on firearm purchases — said the Parkland students have ignited a movement partly because of the specificity of what they’re asking for, and partly because they are doing something that past survivors of mass shootings have not: Threatening to throw those who won’t consider their point of view out of office.

“Gun politics is brass-knuckle politics,” he said.

Aborn said the National Rifle Association was “just as formidable as they are today” when he and others fought successfully for the Brady bill and the assault weapons ban. They succeeded, he said, because they went local, canvassing congressional districts and putting unrelenting pressure on lawmakers to support the measures.

He sees what the Parkland students have triggered as “the second big gun control movement.”

Their success, he said, will be easy to measure.

“If they are able to show that they are able to elect or throw somebody out of office on the guns issue, things will change so quickly you’ll be blinded by it,” he said. “This is all about showing you have raw political power.”

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