Local high school students are energized to vote, and principals and teachers hope to stoke it

Students fill out and address postcards to be sent to elected officials on the Hills Bank property in North Liberty. Friday, March 2, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

The 2018 midterm election, widely regarded as one of the most important elections in recent history, is underway. Candidates nationwide have focused less on swaying voters and more on mobilizing them, particularly those who have never voted before. And one of the biggest pools of first-time voters is young people.

Many 18-year-old high school students in the Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area are enthusiastic to have their voice heard, but to get to the polls, they may require the support of their school.

“If a parent called and said, ‘My son or daughter is going to run over and vote,’ I’d let them vote. Especially if they have an extracurricular and they’re not going to have time to get to the polls I’d say absolutely,” said Tom Keating, the principal at Xavier Catholic High School in Cedar Rapids.

Kennedy High School, also in Cedar Rapids, takes a similar stance on excused absences when it comes to Election Day.

“If a parent were to call a student out for this, it would be considered excused,” said principal Jason Kline, though “there is not a formal ‘voting’ code for absences.”

Gregg Shoultz, principal at Iowa City West High School, said he agrees students have the right to an excused absence on Tuesday, Nov. 6.

“Eighteen-year-olds, or seniors, have a more flexible schedule than the other three grades so if they identified the fact they were coming from a polling place it would be excused,” Shoultz said.

Students from City High marched to the Pentacrest during a walk out to protest gun violence and government inaction in the wake of the most recent school shooting in Florida. Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Administrators said they are focused on encouraging students to get out and vote, as well as making sure they’re informed about candidates. With attack advertisements flying on both sides, it’s hard to know what is right and wrong about each candidate’s platform. Schools combat this by emphasizing fact over fiction.

“Teachers are really pushing hard on fact finding,” Keating said. “You have to know what you’re talking about, know what candidates are talking about, and know what PACs are talking about because those are all very different things.”

Shoultz said informed voting is encouraged at West High as well.

“It’s part of our curriculum to build good citizens and good citizenship means voting and being informed voters,” he said. “In four years, you learn to engage in history and why history and literature is relevant and informs us today.”

The students at West High, like many in the region, don’t seem to have trouble developing and acting on their own political stances, receiving local and national attention for demonstrations against Donald Trump and in favor of gun control, alongside Iowa City High students and others.

Though administrators and teachers hold opinions themselves, having a balanced, neutral staff to teach about the issues is pertinent, Shoultz said.

“During their work time, teachers are focused on the curriculum and the curriculum is not Democratic values and Republican values — it is making our citizens well informed,” he explained.

Though most high schoolers are too young vote, some local high schools have used mock elections to let students express their views. Hundreds of schools across Iowa, and nearly 40,000 students, took part in the 2018 Iowa Youth Straw Poll (Gov. Kim Reynolds and other Republicans came out ahead in that poll, and 84.1 percent of young voters indicated they would register to vote when they are old enough.)

Cameron Kasky speaks during the Road To Change town hall at Linn-Mar High School alongside Emma Gonzalez (left) and Jammal Lemy (right). Thursday, June 21, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

West High’s own poll received 198 responses, and asked students to vote on statewide and district-level races across the state, via a Google form. Democrats were favored by West voters, including Fred Hubbell for governor (with 66.5 percent of the vote), Dave Loebsack for the U.S. House (67.4 percent), Deidre DeJear for secretary of state (65.7 percent), and West High alumnus Zach Wahls for Iowa Senate (86 percent).

“[Social studies and Freshman XPerience teacher] Gina Kutilek, is doing a straw poll vote at Xavier so kids are walking around with ‘I voted’ stickers as if they participated,” Keating said. “It forces them to get to know the candidates and what they stand for and we hope they get used to doing that so they understand down the road it is important to vote.”

The “I voted” stickers make for popular Instagram posts, and were a big motivator for filling out the Google form for Xavier’s straw poll, according to student Michele Barnum.

“Even students that weren’t interested voted, because stickers were involved,” she said. “I believe the results were that Rod Blum and Kim Reynolds won.” Results of a poll at Kennedy High School showed Abby Finkenaur narrowly beating Blum in the race to represent Iowa’s 1st Congressional District, 428 to 427.

Stickers, straw polls and support from teachers aside, it’s on the student body to get out and vote. So how politically active is the youngest generation of voters?

“I have seen lots of students both talking a lot about voting and encouraging their friends and peers to go out and vote,” said Quintin Gay, a senior at Washington High School in Cedar Rapids. “I do a lot of work through March For Our Lives Iowa, a nonprofit I started this summer that encourages youth participation in the political process by encouraging youth to vote and educating the public on where candidates stand on specific issues.”

Students lead the March For Our Lives to the Pentacrest. Saturday, March 24, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Gay and his fellow organizers aren’t the only young voters spurred by the March For Our Lives movement (which inspired walk-outs at Linn-Mar High School in Marion, Washington, North Liberty schools and others following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.)

“I know that many of the seniors are interested in voting. They want to be able to vote to get their voice heard,” Barnum said. “Many people are interested in politics currently having to do with gun control and school safety.”

Kevin Drahos, a student at Linn-Mar, agreed gun control feels especially urgent, even as most candidates and voters are focused on immigration and healthcare as the central issues this election.

“I think the youth population also sees a lot of common values coming under attack and they want to take action and save these values before it’s too late,” he said. “If there was a specific issue bringing students to the polls, I would say it’s gun violence, human rights and ethics.”

Despite the faith students have in their ability to participate, there are still doubts younger voters will get out to the polls.

“It has been much quieter than it was in 2016,” Kline said. “The Young Democrats have put posters up encouraging students to vote and I think that’s the extent of it.”

Students from City High and South East Junior High move their rally to the Pedestrian Mall. Monday, Feb. 19, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Historically, young people in Iowa and across the nation have been hesitant to vote, despite representing a large voting bloc. U.S. Census data showed fewer than half of 18-24 year-old Iowans were registered to vote in 2016, and a mere 36 percent actually voted — and that was in a presidential election, not a midterm. If enough young people get out to vote, they may have a substantial impact on the outcome. This fact is reflected in the energy around the schools.

“I see a lot of students spending time talking to each other and thinking about what issues locally and nationally are really important to them,” Gay said. “The midterms in Iowa are going to be a pretty close race, and I think a lot of students feel that their time and efforts can be valuable to make a real difference.”

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