The day Nauset High senior Garrison Guzzeau went to take his driver’s test, he left the Registry of Motor Vehicles with both his license and his completed voter preregistration, so he will automatically be able to vote when he turns 18 later this year. In this way, Massachusetts makes it easy for young people to pre-register as soon as they turn 16.
Not everyone Garrison’s age is as tuned in as he is to the importance of politics and voting, but young people’s mindsets could change with the passing of the Empower Act. The bill, which was introduced in the Massachusetts legislature by Sen. Julian Cyr of Truro and Rep. Dylan Fernandes of Falmouth, would allow individual towns to decide if 16- and 17-year-olds would be allowed to vote in town elections. It is currently awaiting action by the Joint Committee on Election Laws. Provincetown’s Rep. Sarah Peake is a supporter. “Local elections are a good way to get into the habit of voting,” she said, “as you continue to make that effort throughout your lifetime.”
If Peake is correct, passage of the Empower Act could affect the outcome not just of local elections but also county and statewide ballots. Young people typically do not vote in large numbers compared with older citizens. But when they see government actions having a direct effect on their own lives, they are more likely to become engaged. Allowing 16- and 17-year-olds to vote for members of select boards and school committees, whose decisions often have such direct effects on young people, could produce that kind of civic engagement.
“It’s easy to get involved with things that the select board does,” said Guzzeau, who lives in Orleans, “because the towns out here are only a few thousand people.”
There is also emerging evidence that young people are paying closer attention to politics with the approach of this November’s presidential election.
A recent poll conducted by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) at Tufts University’s Tisch College found that 83 percent of the 2,232 subjects, who ranged in age from 18 to 24, believe that they have the power to change the country. Among those polled, 27 percent had been to a political march or demonstration, compared with 16 percent in a similarly timed poll in 2018; 50 percent of the subjects had tried to persuade others to vote this year, compared with 33 percent in 2018. Two years ago, 6 percent had participated in a political campaign; that number tripled to 18 percent in 2020. Though the Covid-19 pandemic is making civic action more difficult in some ways, the research suggests that young people are giving political participation higher priority.
“Young people care about the same issues as old people,” said Nancy Thomas, the director of Tisch College’s Initiative for Democracy and Higher Education (IDHE). These include the job market, the economy, and their own financial stability. Both the CIRCLE poll and interviews with students, however, show that they are deeply concerned about climate change, racial equity, and education.
On the Outer Cape, the renovation of the decaying Nauset Regional High School in Eastham has emerged as a topic of debate. Each of the four towns in the Nauset district must approve the expenditure of about $130 million in all for the project, with the state expected to contribute about $30 million of that. Brewster taxpayers would have to pick up the largest share, because that town accounts for the largest percentage of students. But Brewster voters tend to be more conservative than those in the other three towns. (Donald Trump got 36 percent of the votes in Brewster in 2016, compared with 34 percent in Orleans, 33 percent in Eastham, and 23 percent in Wellfleet.)
“It makes sense for young people to be interested in this, because they’re the ones being educated,” said Guzzeau. “But it’s not a classic thing that young people mobilize for. They really want to make sure that their voice is heard at town meetings and to make sure people understand what they want for their school.”
Alison Bellarosa of Brewster has a different take on what’s important: empowering women and putting them in positions of power. Her interest in politics was sparked during the leadup to the 2016 election, when she was a senior at Nauset High and then a freshman at Emerson College in Boston.
“I saw Hillary Clinton as a potential female president and I got really excited at the prospect,” Bellarosa said. This year, she supported Elizabeth Warren. “She encompassed a lot of the qualities that I was looking for, such as a commitment to climate change, and a commitment to protecting women’s rights over their bodies,” she said. “Prison reform has been really important to me, especially as of late with people deciding where we’re putting our money.”
Tisch’s Thomas noted, “Like most Americans, students really care about presidential elections. I’ve also seen a lot of action on college campuses around contentious local races. These students want their vote to count. Out-of-state students are more likely to register in the place where their vote will have the most impact.” Bellarosa agreed, noting the increased attention that she paid to the Democratic primaries compared to other years.
Sometimes, it can be hard for students who have moved away from home to feel invested in local politics either where they grew up or where they went to college. Bellarosa, who was living in Brighton before the pandemic, explained, “I’m not that invested in Brewster politics. And I didn’t really have a pulse on what the Brighton community needed. So, I felt like I couldn’t vote there. I’m a college kid. Moving into their town and telling them how they should run it was just not for me.” As a result, she is putting more time into learning about the presidential race.
Nancy Thomas says young people need to understand that civic engagement is not just about presidential elections, but about the daily life of communities. “This work is year-round,” she said. “The worst things that campuses can do is treat elections as an event. It’s one of many opportunities to participate in the democratic process.”