Home / Government and politics / The Youth Vote: What’s Happening In Alachua County Schools to Heighten Election Knowledge?

The Youth Vote: What’s Happening In Alachua County Schools to Heighten Election Knowledge?

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Turnout is everything on Election Day.

Floridians will cast votes on several local and statewide races in the state’s most pivotal midterm election in years, many of which pose massive ramifications for the state and country.

As of Monday, more than 5 million Floridians voted by mail or cast a ballot during the state’s early voting period – exceeding the 3.19 million voters who voted before Election Day in 2014. Among those voters, 70,426 were in Alachua County.

In Alachua County, turnout has previously favored older voters considered more likely to vote, especially those in the 66+ age demographic. Although younger voters – specifically those ages 18 to 25 – amassed a higher turnout in the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, youth turnout often declines in the primary and general elections of a midterm year.

To remedy prior slumps in youth turnout and encourage potential new voters, several Alachua County organizations and school administrations have reached out to public school students to spur interest in the political process.

The Alachua County Supervisor of Elections serves as the primary resource for informing public school students about elections and voting by reaching out to high school students during the spring semester of an election year.

Elections office spokesman TJ Pyche said the Supervisor of Elections office provides voter registration forms to eligible students – students can pre-register to vote as early as age 16 in Florida – and holds mock elections in some high schools. The efforts often target high school seniors but are open to all students.

According to Pyche, the office reaches out during the spring because most high school seniors turn 18 as their senior year progresses. This year, around 400 students registered in Alachua County’s public schools during the office’s spring push.

“I’ve been principal here now for seven years and am very grateful for the supervisor coming in to register students each spring,” said David Shelnutt, principal of Gainesville High School.

Shelnutt said Gainesville High teachers often encourage students to be informed of voting and upcoming elections in its economics and U.S. government class. In addition, the high school has several political student organizations – Young Democrats, Young Republicans and Young Moderates – that actively organize and reach out to the student body and advocate for political candidates outside of school hours.

Students are informed of the voting process in a similar manner at Hawthorne Middle/High School, where high school students discuss the election in economics, government and other social studies courses, according to principal Daniel Ferguson.

“We go through the voting process to students of voting age and strongly encourage them to go out of vote,” Ferguson said. “And they’re very aware of their civic responsibility to vote.”

Ferguson said that the school does not have any political student organizations but offers voter registration forms to eligible students. Although Hawthorne focuses its election efforts on high school students, Ferguson said his administration may focus on informing middle schoolers about the election process in the future.

While high schools have had personal success working with their schools and the Supervisor of Elections office, other political organizations in Alachua County have had mixed results in their outreach efforts to target public schools in time for Election Day.

The Alachua County Republican Party has seen success in its efforts to engage the youth vote, according to chairwoman Tammy Prince. Prince said the party provides students pocket-sized constitution books and voter registration forms year-round through fundraising efforts by the party.

Prince was happy with the work being done to engage the youth vote – who have assisted the Republican Party in several campaign events since the August primary election.

“We’ve been trying very hard to get the [youth vote] motivated, and of course, we [motivate] using social media,” Prince said. “As of 2016, there’s a huge difference between the 2016 election and now.”

Cynthia Chestnut, chairwoman of the Alachua County Democratic Party, said although the party’s efforts to tackle voter outreach has taken a grassroots approach, the party has not found similar success in organizing high school students across the county.

“We’re still working on [organizing high school students],” Chestnut said. “It’s not as effective, but we’ll continue to target high school democrats in the future.”

Chestnut said the Democratic Party will continue to organize high school students in future elections but is happy with the voter demographics that have turned out to volunteer for Democrats in Alachua County.

“I think the good thing about our volunteers is that [they] are really generational,” Chestnut said. “We’ve had volunteers as old as 75 and as young as 18.”

Despite the ramifications surrounding the Election Day results, Shelnutt said that the efforts that he and other principals have made in encouraging voter turnout is just as strong today as they would be in any election.

“I think we’ve always been encouraging students to register and vote, just as I think we would encourage all citizens, even if they’re not students, to vote the way they believe and feel led to vote,” Shelnutt said.

Voter turnout in the 2018 primary election in Alachua County. Turnout by voters in the 66-plus demographic often eclipses other demographics in primary elections, particularly in the midterms.

About Angel Kennedy

Angel is a reporter with WUFT News and the Production Manager for GHQ – a top-40 radio station based out of the University of Florida. Angel can be reached at 813-810-6742 or by emailing angel.kennedy@ufl.edu.

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