Young Organizers Are Ditching the Obsessive Focus on Voter Registration

Talking only about the youth vote is not effective for young folks, Rahhel says: “I think midterms are important, and I don’t want to diminish their importance, but I think so many people talk about long-term work and long-term power-building with young people, but then just kind of pause for the election.” Instead, Minnesota Youth Collective is talking about the election within the context of its other work, including a neighborhood-by-neighborhood organizing program.

While knocking on doors in 2021, Rahhel recalls, a young person shared that he didn’t really vote. “I said, ‘These two ballot initiatives [on rent stabilization and reimagining community safety] are really important,’ and explained them. He was like, ‘Oh, this is great, because it’s a policy-centered election, not a people-centered election.’” That, to Rahhel, illustrates the importance of connecting issues to voting — young people want to see tangible changes because of their votes.

There’s similar energy in Colorado, where New Era Colorado has been a force within the state’s electoral politics for 16 years; the group has registered more than 250,000 young voters. The work done by New Era, plus changes to election access policy, brought record youth turnout in 2020. (Since 2020, Colorado has had automatic voter registration. New Era also worked in coalition to pass online voter registration and the Colorado Votes Act, which includes a provision to expand polling location access on college campuses.) Following the record turnout in 2020, executive director Nicole Hensel tells Teen Vogue, “we really asked ourselves: What are we wielding all of this political power for?” 

Over the course of a yearlong listening tour, young people offered specific answers: The result is the Youth Agenda, an issue platform shaped by young Coloradans that includes climate justice, reproductive rights, higher education and student debt, democracy reform, immigrant rights, LGBTQ rights, and more, with a set of demands for each issue, and more than 18 signs-on from partner organizations who lead on various issues.

New Era’s field program has shifted too: They register voters, Hensel says, but they’re leading with issues rather than voter registration. The organization is most effective at the local level, Hensel adds, including focus on Youth Agenda wins at the city council level and on municipal ballot measures, and working within regional hubs so organizers can be responsive to local needs. “Whether it’s in Durango, in southwest Colorado, or Denver, Boulder, Fort Collins,” says Hensel, “we can be really responsive to any local measures or races that are happening there.” 

New Era knew the Youth Agenda was going to make people uncomfortable “who were always very comfortable with New Era when we were just turning out the youth vote and not asking for anything in return,” Hensel says. “Now that we’re asking for something in return, it makes people nervous.” Historically, though, the role of young people in society has been “imagining a future that doesn’t already exist.” 

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