Will November’s election show the hidden potential of young voters?

With outreach, Leaders Igniting Transformation in Milwaukee hope they will have an impact

By: - October 13, 2022 6:30 am
Protester holding sign reading Voter Suppression is Violence

Voter Suppression is Violence by coolrevolution on Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

With the November election just weeks away, communities are working to ensure that neighbors, friends, and loved ones are ready when the polls open. Milwaukee youth are not only working to prepare city residents to navigate the voting process, they also represent a powerful voting block all their own — something that members of Leaders Igniting Transformation (LIT) have realized as the group conducts its own voter outreach efforts.

“I think 100%, as a voting block, we’re overlooked,” 22-year-old LIT member Crystal Egbo told Wisconsin Examiner. “I think, in my experience, it’s kind of come down to campaigns wanting to put their efforts towards something that’s more certain, and more sure. And I think a lot of times being youth, being that we’re still developing our ideas, being that we tend to move around a lot, it’s easy for us to be overlooked. But I think that’s extremely unfair, because a lot of us have extremely different life perspectives and experiences that deserve to be included, and deserve to be considered by people who are running for these positions.”

Young potential voters blend into a crowd during a Bernie Sanders rally in Milwaukee during 2016. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Young potential voters blend into a crowd during a Bernie Sanders rally in Milwaukee during 2016. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Being young and underestimated, however, hasn’t translated to a lack of motivation. Rather, voters in their late teens into their 20’s are playing an important role in informing and mobilizing fellow citizens. On Sept. 30, LIT held its Statewide Action Gathering , bringing student organizers from 11 University of Wisconsin campuses together  for a weekend of training, voting outreach and other activities. LIT members also created a voter guide for youth statewide and contacted nine candidates statewide for comment.

“Young voters are powerful,” Cendi Tena, interim co-executive director of LIT, said in a press statement. “Based on what we’re hearing from youth on the ground in Wisconsin, I expect young folks will turn out in historic numbers this year. If candidates, party leaders, and elected officials really want to gain traction this November and in 2024, they should prioritize building relationships with young voters.”

Amanda Avalos, also interim co-executive director at LIT, said elected officials shouldn’t overlook young people in the state. “We have been working hard for years to ensure the youth voter constituency is represented in our political system,” Avalos said in the LIT statement. “We’re going to continue showing up for each election, so we encourage [elected officials] to see the value in young voters throughout the state and take future opportunities to engage with them.”

Woman with sign that reads: Voter Suppression still rigs our elections. Let's keep up the fight for all voting rights.
“Voter Suppression
2020 Women’s March, Washington DC by Roman K via Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

LIT volunteers say the issues that motivate young voters like themselves to go to the polls are never far from mind. “We want to see a lot of different changes in our community,” Jayla Ross, a 20-year-old, told Wisconsin Examiner. “And some of those issues include addressing abortion rights, gun control, inflation, and most definitely student loan debt.” Ross, a Milwaukee-native, moved to Oshkosh for college, and participated in the late September weekend action gathering.

LIT members who gathered at UW-Milwaukee’s campus also canvassed the surrounding neighborhood. Egbo said that she particularly enjoys outreach with LIT as it’s a nonpartisan group. The LIT volunteers canvassed with confidence despite a recent Republican-backed lawsuit targeting voter outreach efforts that they claim were partisan. (The lawsuit, which sought records from the Milwaukee Election Commission about the voter outreach program, was recently dismissed.)

“The nonpartisan aspect for me is a huge relief,” Egbo told Wisconsin Examiner. “And I think that it really just reiterates the mission and purpose of the organization. Get out the vote is not to go out there and agitate Republican people. It’s to go out there and make sure that people have information, specifically those who are historically disenfranchised.”

Voting rights activists and others gather at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee on the first day of early voting. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Voting rights activists and others gathered at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee on the first day of early voting in late July. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Ross found the gathering rewarding. Ross and Egbo canvassed together in a predominately Black neighborhood. Other participants focused on Spanish-speaking parts of the city, while others talked to voters in the neighborhoods surrounding UW-Milwaukee’s campus. Both Ross and Egbo heard city residents bring several issues to their attention that may drive them to the polls.

“I think, across the board, what we’re hearing from the people that we spoke with in our community was definitely wanting more representation,” Egbo explained. “People feel really dismissed, and they feel as though it’s harder to interact with society through voting and participating in elections when you don’t see anyone that looks like you. So really wanting to have more of a representative Congress, more of a representative state legislature, was something that we heard a lot.” The pair also heard from several voters they spoke with who were concerned about environmental issues, particularly climate change.

Another issue that LIT has heard a lot about is voting rights, said Kathleen Otto, senior policy manager for the organization. “The threat to democracy, and the infringement of voting rights, that is something that we’ve been hearing a lot from students and other folks in the community,” she told Wisconsin Examiner. “In the confusion —  like, intentional confusion — that has been kind of stirred up especially since the 2020 election, and all the lawsuits [about access to voting] that have been happening at the state-level and different things like that.”

That makes direct voter education and outreach a crucial undertaking, she believes, from knowing where a person’s polling place is to understanding that they can no longer use dropboxes to submit an absentee ballot. So, part of LIT’s task is “making sure that we’re even more clear about getting people the information they need in order to cast their ballot, and the new hoops that they have to jump through in order to do so,” said Otto. People are frustrated “because they know that it’s not quite as easy as it was before. And they know that it’s due to people trying to infringe on those rights.”

Voting rights activists and others gather at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee on the first day of early voting. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)
Voting rights activists and others gather at the Midtown Center in Milwaukee on the first day of early voting in July 2022. (Photo | Isiah Holmes)

Since the gathering, LIT has been updating its voter guide and plans to distribute 100,000 copies. “It’s really a great opportunity to give people an easy but in-depth way to understand who’s on the ballot, and what issues are really going to be up for grabs, this election,” said Egbo. LIT also has a field team that  knocks  on doors full time, with a goal of knocking on 100,000 doors in Milwaukee before the election cycle ends. LIT volunteers reached 5,400 during the action gathering weekend.

Ross and Egbo described meeting a man who was older than 60 who was unregistered and had never voted. “We literally spent like, 30 minutes going through every single thing with him to make sure he had his I.D., and really get him registered to vote,” said Ross. “It was really heartwarming because he was a really nice guy and he just wanted our help.””

LIT will continue holding meetings and organizing for November and beyond. For Ross and Egbo, the work is a constant reminder of the potential of Wisconsin’s young minds.

“I think especially just within my friend group and my peers, a lot of people within our age range don’t really feel like their voice matters,” said Egbo. “They don’t really have a high sense of individual political efficacy, and I think LIT is doing a really amazing job of bringing us in so we can go back and inspire them to express their experiences and their ideals and their beliefs through voting. Because that’s one of the most important, and prominent ways to be heard.”

Ross underscored the sentiment. “We just want to be heard and seen, and make a change in our environment and our community,” she said. “Just giving the youth a chance at life.”

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Isiah Holmes
Isiah Holmes

Isiah Holmes is a journalist and videographer, and a lifelong resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His writing has been featured in Urban Milwaukee, Isthmus, Milwaukee Stories, Milwaukee Neighborhood News Services, Pontiac Tribune, the Progressive Magazine, Al Jazeera, and other outlets.

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