Young, Rural, and Racialized: Reaching the Most Underserved Young Voters
By: Jazmin Kay, Executive Director at 18by.vote; Uma Kalkar, Innovation Director at 18by.vote
The coronavirus pandemic has illuminated the cracks in our voting systems. Significant limitations on in-person activities have led to an increased reliance on digital get-out-the-vote efforts, online voter registration and mobilization tools, and digital voter resources and information. While many would assume that digitally native young people would be well situated for this COVID-19 imposed shift, the existence of digital tools alone will not automatically increase youth voter turnout unless coupled with accessible information and outreach. In 2018, CIRCLE found that only 10% of young people surveyed used online voter registration tools, and just 5% utilized text reminders to vote.
The emphasis on digital voter outreach exacerbates the digital inequity among remote voters and communities. For rural youth, and especially for racialized rural young people, internet connectivity and civic engagement opportunities can be difficult to access. In light of COVID-19, addressing the disparities faced by these demographics is crucial to getting all of our youngest voters to the polls.
As CIRCLE explored in 2017, 34% and 31% of youth in civic deserts lack reliable internet access and mobile coverage, respectively. This curtails their exposure to political and electoral information as well as their ability to critically research candidates and policy platforms. “Having WiFi issues has held me back a few times when trying to get political information for something,” said 15-year-old Ruby Gallin, a Civic Engagement Fellow for 18by.vote from Olivebridge, New York. “If I'm reading about something on my phone and I lose WiFi like that, that’s it... there’s really nothing I can do about it.”
These gaps in connectivity point to larger issues surrounding broadband infrastructure in rural communities, as well as partisan quarrels over net neutrality, or equal treatment of and access to the internet. Fewer regulations on internet providers allow telecommunications giants to systemically deny broadband access in hard-to-reach areas of the United States, and to impose price barriers for lower-income internet users, reducing their ability to access online content.
“One of the biggest challenges we have is basically getting simple information out to everyone because everyone is so spread out, and then also my area is a relatively poor one. You couldn’t depend on everyone to have up-to-date internet that would allow them to access information in a way other than person to person,” says 16-year-old Patrick Clapsaddle, an 18by.vote Civic Engagement Fellow from Adams, Tennessee. Facing limited access to digital technologies and limited digital literacy, rural youth—especially those from marginalized and overlooked communities—are denied avenues to civic advancement and to educating themselves on civic issues, voting rights and requirements, and organizing to rally behind causes they’re passionate about.
Additionally, stereotypes of American rural communities often approach these areas as homogenous in demographics, cultures, and concerns. Misinformation about the mosaic of rural residents stems from a lack of research on who lives in rural areas and lower census completion rates, both of which are compounded by inadequate access to the internet.
According to the Rural Sociological Society, about one-fifth of rural residents (10.3 million people) are people of color. Yet, the rhetoric—and policies—around rural people often focuses on white, blue-collar citizens. Twenty-year-old Virginia Hugo-Vidal from Buxton, Maine, points out the racial and class divide in rural America. “I wish people understood the intersection that rural areas also tend to be poor. So we tend to have the worst school districts, lower rates of going on to college. A lot of rural places can be predominantly people of color. So there’s just a lot of intersection between geographic location, educational level, economic level, and all of that. And they sort of come together to form the experience of the rural voter.”
These factors, in addition to a lack of policy and public attention toward rural voters, is reflected in voter turnout among rural youth. According to Catalist data, in 2018, rural youth (ages 18-29) made up only 2% of total votes cast in the midterm elections. This extremely low participation rate is a consequence of civic deserts and points to a cyclical lack of engagement and investment in hard-to-reach areas. Troublingly, the erasure of rural, racialized youth populations contributes to disadvantages in civic engagement and underrepresentation in public policies.
Connecting with Rural Youth
In an effort to combat the disenfranchisement of young, rural, and racialized voters—and in response to the pandemic—our work at the youth-led nonprofit 18by.vote has focused on designing systems beyond online methods to increase access to civic participation among youth ages 16-18. Through our Civic Engagement Fellowship program, we work with young people ages 14-19, mostly located in suburban and rural communities, to create peer-to-peer civics projects that empower other youth in their communities. For 18by.vote, mitigating civic apathy and reinforcing the importance of participating in democracy is essential to instilling lifelong voting habits in young people, who make up 37% of the current electorate.
Reaching rural youth and supporting their local civic initiatives fosters a personal connection with voting. Amanda Skurkovich, a 16-year-old 18by.vote Civic Engagement Fellow from Southampton, New Jersey, remarked on how the absence of information makes civic participation daunting for some teenagers. “I feel like so many [young] people just don't even know how, especially now with mail-in voting. They just don’t know how, they don’t know when, and they don’t know really even who to vote for because they don’t really have the technology to inform them on really what's going on in our country.” Talking with young people in underserved communities and helping them use available resources to learn about voter registration and dates, the importance of voting, and how to practice civic engagement builds a unique, community-oriented space, utilizing peer-to-peer outreach to spread and enhance the use of digital technologies.
Now is the time to address rural digital access and educational gaps among our youngest voters. According to data analyzed by CIRCLE, as of August 2020, in 30 of 39 states there were fewer 18- and 19-year-olds registered to vote than in November 2016, painting a potentially concerning picture of many states’ “civic and electoral infrastructure, and of [their] ability to ‘grow voters.’”
“I think that we're missing a huge window of potential voters. So when it comes to voter participation, one of the key points is to push deadlines and to share that information and to get it out to potential voters,” said Hayley Spellman, age 22, from Emporia, Kansas. COVID-19 has reinforced how the internet is a driver of modern communication; and in order to combat the unique set of barriers to civic access that young rural voters face, we need to empower and invest in these young people, who know their communities best, to ensure civic information and voter resources are accessible to all.
It is incumbent on us all to help combat and reverse the civic marginalization of rural youth and find new community-based solutions, online and offline. Understanding that young people are the best way to reach other young people and bolstering peer-to-peer initiatives will bring out these new, first-time voters, especially in marginalized areas. In order to make politics personal, educators, community members, friends, and family should take opportunities to equip and inform young people about their local, state, and federal elections. The public should connect with their elected officials to take legislative action to increase rural broadband connectivity and digital literacy, as well as explore innovative public-private partnerships. The 2020 election is a change election—let’s transform the agency, voice, and representation of all our youngest eligible voters.
Jazmin Kay is a youth voting rights activist, writer, and Executive Director at 18by.vote. Follow her on Twitter
Uma Kalkar is a Master of Public Policy candidate at The Paris Institute of Political Studies specializing in digital technologies and the Innovation Director at 18by.vote. Follow her on Twitter.