College Students Working to Get Young Voters to Polls in Doña Ana County

Feb 13, 2018

Getting young people to vote is easier said than done, but university students from Texas and New Mexico are trying.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows about 46 percent of voters aged 18 to 29 cast ballots in the 2016 presidential election. That’s compared to 59 percent of people 30 to 44 years old, 67 percent of those aged 45 to 64, and 71 percent of voters 65 and older.

University of Texas at El Paso student Sergio Olivas, Jr. is attorney general of the school's Student Government Association. When it comes to voter turnout, Olivas said we can do better.

“I feel that from 1776 people have been fighting for our right to vote," Olivas said. "It took us amendments just to even expand our right to vote, so to not vote I feel it would be an insult to the work that’s been done,” Olivas said.

That’s why Olivas, who lives in Doña Ana County, joined the Election Advisory Council, a non-partisan volunteer group founded by the County Clerk’s office in 2015 to promote involvement in elections. The council aims to boost democratic engagement by helping people register to vote, distributing election information and educating citizens about why voting matters.

"The membership hasn’t reflected most of the younger age population, so my hope is if we can at least get a couple of volunteers to attend some of these meetings or maybe organize something independently of their own to encourage young voters to get out to vote, I think that would be excellent,” Olivas said.

NMSU communications disorders student Amanda Lamberti said until last year she had not voted. Now, she’s involved.

“I guess if I were speaking to my 18-year-old self, I would get more involved with the politics just because as time goes by and as I get older… it will affect me or the students who are going to vote later,” Lamberti said.

Lamberti said with important decisions being made on issues like healthcare and immigration…voting is essential.  But that won’t convince everyone. Lamberti’s classmate Samantha Homan said she didn’t participate in the presidential election because she’s politically neutral.

“I’ve not ever really been a fan of what it brings out in people, especially the latest election," Homan said. "But I come from a family that has always voted and has always talked about politics. I just did not vote this year simply because I did not see which choice I would probably want to make there.”

Low voter turnout isn’t just a youth issue, it’s a problem across all demographics. About 11 percent of voters in Las Cruces participated in the city’s municipal elections in 2017. That’s up from the 8 percent turnout for similar elections in 2013, but still low enough for students like Olivas to take action.

From left, UTEP student Sergio Olivas Jr. and NMSU student Joshua Gandarilla are part of Doña Ana County's Election Advisory Council.
Credit Michael Hernandez

“When our generation’s voter turnout is in the single digits, that’s unacceptable. We’ve got to change it,” Olivas said.

Olivas suggested making the voting process more exciting so people won’t feel like it’s a chore.

“Maybe it’s having a fun day at the park where people can actually celebrate the fact that we can go out to vote," Olivas said. "Personally, for me I would like to see Election Day as a national holiday, but without the passing of legislation or anything I think we have to operate within the current system, and so if we can get people excited about going out to vote, then that can help.”

To help with the council’s initiative in New Mexico, Olivas reached out to his friend Joshua Gandarilla, who is studying government at New Mexico State University. Gandarilla said more work needs to be done to educate students on how electing local and state officials directly impacts them.

"If we can engage younger people, not only register them to vote but also engage with them in a way that we educate them on why it is important to vote, then that can help us move toward a more positive voting future,” Gandarilla said.

Gandarilla said the council, which plans to visit schools across Doña Ana County to register students to vote, is still recruiting volunteers.

“So far, we have quite a bit of people out and I know of more that are still to join us, so we’re in that stage of kind of organizing everyone, and as soon as that stage is set, then we’ll actually go out and engage with people,” Gandarilla said.

They won’t need to engage Samantha Homan.  She said she wished she would have voted in 2016 but plans to vote this fall.

“I do regret not voting, just because I think it’s kind of the dumbest thing I could have done because that means I didn’t get a voice this election, but I do plan on voting next election,” Homan said.

Many hope a lot more college students and others vote in the fall.  This year’s women’s marches across the country were organized around the theme “Power to the Polls,” with a goal of registering 1 million new voters by November.