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Rural Voices Critical to Equitable Youth Voting and Engagement

These excerpts are part of CIRCLE's 2021 Youth Expertise Series, in which young people share ideas for how to fulfill the promise of the 26th Amendment.

Throughout 2021, we have been celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age to 18 and brought millions of young people into democracy. A half century later, youth are participating in elections at a historic rate. But the challenge of equitably engaging all youth in elections endures, and the promise of the 26th Amendment remains unfulfilled while some youth remain underrepresented at the ballot box and in political life.

One group that often reports a lack of electoral information and civic opportunities is rural young people. CIRCLE research has previously found that a majority of Millennials in rural areas live in “civic deserts”: communities where they perceive a lack of access and opportunities to engage in civic life. Rural youth can also be disadvantaged by a lack of critical infrastructure like broadband access, and young people of color in rural areas can experience intersecting layers of marginalization.

As part of our Youth Expertise Series on fulfilling the promise of the 26th Amendment, we asked young people in Rural Assembly’s Rural Youth Catalyst Project to share their ideas and experiences on how to overcome barriers and more fully engage rural young people in elections. Read some of their insights below, and join us on November 17 for a panel with Rural Assembly about rural youth and political engagement.

Rural Youth Often Don’t See Good Examples of Youth Political Leadership at Home. Social Media Can Help Expand their Outlook

By Frankie Edwards, Ph.D. student at Virginia Tech University from an Appalachian community in southwest Virginia.

“Young adults in rural communities have a challenging time making sense of their own democratic power. The governance in rural communities tends to fall in the hands of a select few, which oftentimes tend to be elderly individuals (60 years and older). This form of governance is referred to as a gerontocracy. In fact, the United States federal government can be seen as a gerontocracy. With the continued governance and re-election of older generations, younger generations are not given the chance to redirect our democratic fate. 

One of the benefits of social media is that it can easily be used to engage young eligible voters. I am by no means a social media expert (in fact I do not have TikTok…gasp!). However, as a young adult who often uses Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and Facebook, I can still see the impact social media has on the dissemination of election information.”

Read Frankie’s full reflection on the Rural Assembly blog.

Address Other Sources of Marginalization, like Criminalization and Disenfranchisement

By Garrett Blaize, a member of the Central Appalachian Arts Assembly who serves on the board of a small non-profit organization that organizes for social and environmental justice.

“The criminalization of young people across America, especially black, brown, and indigenous youth, leaves many without a voice in our elections. This is compounded by exploitable policies like “prison gerrymandering” where incarcerated people are counted as constituents of the electoral district they are incarcerated in. This amplifies the voting power of the largely aging, largely white communities where prisons are often cited to the disadvantage of other communities, particularly the communities from which incarcerated people are uprooted.

These hard barriers to voting cannot be addressed outside of deep structural reforms, including especially the formal enfranchisement of formerly incarcerated people, which would be a tremendous step towards building a more engaged, robust, and healthy democracy in America.”

A Role for Schools and Media to Prepare and Engage Youth

By Opal Besaw, a high school senior in Kalispell, MT, who is passionate about equality for all people, especially those with Different Abilities

“I firmly believe that every person in America should not only be easily able to vote, they should be excited and empowered to do so. The question is, how do we foster this excitement in our young people? I envision a world in which we take purposeful steps to reach out and engage, particularly with our minority and first generation voters. This could be through opportunities for and emphasis on civic engagement during school: i.e., making student elections feel more accepting of all students (not just popular kids), and/or the distribution of general voter information in schools.

Furthermore, schools and communities would do well to encourage more advocacy involvement among youth. If a student is secure in the knowledge of what they believe in, and feels comfortable advocating for it, they are more likely to make an informed decision at the polls. 

The media can also play an important role in reaching youth voters. If students see their role models as voters, they are more likely to feel needed in this process, and not as if they are missing the boat."