The right to vote is a pillar of the Constitution and democracy in the United States, so why not make a day of it?
The Doña Ana County Clerk’s Office did exactly that as it partnered with the Election Advisory Council to host the second annual “Celebrating Democracy in Doña Ana County" event.
Dozens of volunteers from a variety of local civic groups taught more than 200 Las Cruces Public Schools high school students about civic engagement during the nonpartisan event held at the county government center.
Students met with local candidates seeking election and current public officials, played historical-themed games and took advantage of New Mexico’s only day of the year to both register to vote and cast a ballot.
Arrowhead Park Early College High School Senior Omar Trujillo wasted no time making his voice heard in his first election. Trujillo said he registered to vote when he got his driver’s license at 18 and researched candidates on the ballot.
“If I’m going to be voting I’m not going to be voting blindsighted. I educate myself and I understand who is on the ballot rather than just another name and another person and another party," Trujillo said.
Trujillo registered as a Republican but said he would vote for another party’s candidate if he felt they were a better fit for public office. Regardless, Trujillo said he believes it’s important that everybody votes, especially women and minorities.
“Just to exercise the 19th Amendment from people who fought for the rights for women to vote such as Susan B. Anthony. Everybody knows who Susan B. Anthony is. Alice Paul and Elizabeth Stanton, like those people fought for the right to vote and minorities. I’m a minority," Trujillo said. "I’m a first-generation American, my family was from Mexico and so it was a little harder for them to register to vote here as it is for me because I am a natural-born citizen.”
18-year-old Stephanie Garcia, another senior at Arrowhead Park, said she wanted to register to vote to represent her demographic as a young voter.
“I think it’s pretty important because we are the ones that are going to grow up to be doctors, policemen, lawyers and we are going to learn a lot from the past and we’re here to make… mistakes from the past, make them better and learn from them and improve the community around us," Garcia said.
Garcia said she’s waiting to vote to learn more about the candidates and their stances.
Doña Ana County Clerk Amanda López Askin said encouraging students like Garcia and Trujillo to understand how democracy works and make informed decisions is the event’s goal.
“We want to encourage people to understand the process. We want people to understand that it is a right that many people have died for in order for us to have the opportunity to vote. Today is about education," Askin said. "Young people have the opportunity to vote if they choose to. It’s not an obligation and they can gather information today, they can speak to candidates today and over the next month they can make a decision about what leader best represents them and that’s important, right. Because we always want to underscore the voter education and access to information and that is a vital part of our democracy.”
Getting young voters engaged in the election process has been historically difficult. But data from the U.S. Census Bureau found young voters 18 to 29 were the only age demographic to see an increase in turnout of 1.1 percent during the 2016 presidential election compared to 2012.
Despite the slight gain among youth, midterm elections seem to see fewer participants across all age groups. Just 36.4 percent of eligible voters turned out in 2014. Askin said she hopes that trend will change with a new electorate.
“So, millennials are not voting near the rate as baby boomers. They’re just not and so I would really hope that the Generation Z takes up that cause and decides they’re going to be the generation that matches the Baby Boomers and beyond and so I believe in them. I believe they asked great questions today, they care about their community, they care about each other and I firmly believe that these events can only support that and enhance what they’re already learning in school and again online," Askin said.
By engaging new and soon-to-be voters in the electoral process, civic officials said they hope to turn student enthusiasm into action.