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Where did our votes go? Silencing young voters in the aftermath of Parkland

News & Features | April 8, 2019

CW: Suicide, gun violence

Alyssa Alhadeff, Martin Duque Anguiano, Nicholas Dworet, Jaime Guttenberg, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, Peter Wang, Chris Hixon, Aaron Feis, Scott Beigel. These were the victims of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018.

Melanie Gilbert Becker, an alumna of Stoneman Douglas High and sophomore at Tufts University, remembers the complete shock she felt when she received the news about the shooting from her uncle. “I was thinking of this one teacher, she’s a cancer survivor. She did survive, but so many other people didn’t,” Becker said. Like many others from Parkland, Becker was heartbroken by the tragedy. “It was a really hard day. The shooter was in my gym class in eighth grade,” she recalled.“This class clown I knew was a mass murderer. Everything I knew was turned on its head.”

The losses from the shooting rippled deeply and gravely throughout the community. In the days, weeks, and months following, the healing process took on different forms for different people.

“What made it easier for me was seeing the movement immediately mobilize,” Becker remarked. Only four days after the shooting, Parkland student survivors came together under the online platform Never Again, with the mission of stricter gun reform policy and plans for nationwide protests. With Never Again, they organized the March for Our Lives Protest that eventually took place on March 24, 2018. These student activists also used social media platforms to prolong the movement’s presence in the news cycle. Young people were at the forefront of fostering bold political action in response to epic tragedy, a force never before witnessed on a national level.

As the movement grew, there came with it a sense of urgency for young people to vote in the 2018 midterm elections. Housed in Tisch College of Civic Life, the group Center For Information & Research On Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) researched the youth movement after Parkland and found significant evidence of its effects in the midterms. Voting provides a direct channel to determine which federal, local, and state officials accurately represent Americans and the issues they care about. For today’s youth, one of the most urgent of those issues is gun reform. Gun violence is an epidemic that has reached an unacceptable death toll, one that directly impacts young people at alarming rates. The 2018 midterm elections were an opportunity for students to vote for representatives who could respond to their grief and anger through effective legislative action. Kristian Lundber, Associate Researcher at CIRCLE, said that young people “decided the way to fix [gun violence] was to work within the system and vote to enact the change they wanted to see, to make their voices heard at the ballot box.”

Dr. Peter Levine, founding deputy director of CIRCLE, commented that the Parkland students created “an amazing youth led social movement.” He added that CIRCLE’s research “finds that almost two-thirds of all youth said they had paid some attention to Parkland. Those who were actively involved with the movement were 21 percentage points more likely to vote.”

On a national level, the results of the movement were tangible. According to CIRCLE’s research young voters aged 18-21 saw their highest election turnout in 25 years. Additionally, NBC News analysts found that voters under 30 were one of the core groups key to the Democratic takeback of the House.

Despite the youth movement’s general success, a closer look at the elections in Florida reveals a darker side of the story. The young voices who were most directly affected by gun violence, and who had the loudest outcries against it, were those in Parkland. But evidence shows that those voices may have been silenced when it came to voting at the polls last November. The Washington Post reported that 15 percent of mail-in ballots that were sent in for the midterm election by young voters (ages 18-21) in Broward County, where Parkland is located, were never counted. This number is significantly higher than Florida’s state average for uncounted ballots—5.4 percent.

This news, though disheartening, is not all that surprising coming from Florida. The state is notorious for its contentious election history, which gained national attention in 2000 with the contested Bush v. Gore presidential election and following Supreme Court case.

“The biggest issue then was ballot irregularities and how to count the ballots,” Megan Newsome, a researcher at the University of Florida, told the Observer. She also emphasised that there was less voter accessibility in 2000; for example, there were no mail-in ballots in Florida during that time. Newsome added that “the reforms put in place in 2000 were intended to make the recount process smoother, quicker, and less controversial than 2000. What 2018 showed was that those reforms helped in some areas and hurt in others; the recount of 2018 was ultimately still very controversial despite the efforts in 2000.” Even with these reforms, Newsome warns that Florida is still “incredibly behind” in terms of election law.

The Broward County mail-in ballots were rejected for reasons such as failing to arrive on time and having signatures that did not match voting records. Election officials compare the signature on the mail-in ballot to the signature on a voter’s registration form. This signature is often taken from documents such as a driver’s license, which many young voters would have filled out in high school.

Matt Tolbert, a sophomore at Tufts and active member of JumboVote, commented on the voting-by-mail process based on his experience working with students. “For young people in particular, chances are your signature has changed, your handwriting has changed, something may not be exactly the same,” he said. “If [election officials] see something is different, and it is totally up to them, there is no form of accountability, they can just be like, ‘Sorry, signature doesn’t match,’ [and] reject your ballot––that’s huge.”

Another part of the problem in Florida is the time frame the state sets for sending in mail-in ballots. Mail-in ballots are due at 5:00 a.m. on Election Day, whereas residents in Florida can vote in the polls until 7:00 p.m. Newsome believes that mail-in ballots should be counted if they are postmarked on Election Day.

Talking specifically about Florida, Tolbert added that “a lot of swing states, a lot of purple states, have a lot of strict voting laws. Florida is not user-friendly at all.” Newsome spoke to the fact that the voting discrepancy in Broward County signals a larger voting problem in Florida, where one percent of mail-in ballots get thrown out statewide. Though this may seem like a low percentage, its practical implication is that one in 100 votes are not counted. “In 2018 the governor’s race was determined by 30,000 votes and Senate determined by 100,000 votes. It’s incredibly important—this is the race where everybody’s vote should’ve counted,” Newsome said.

On a national level, challenges in the voting process often disproportionately affect young voting-by-mail voters as well. These obstacles are actively disenfranchising young people from the political process. “[The] absentee ballot is another barrier to vote, it’s a process that young people find challenging,” Kiesa said. “A story like this is concerning but is not surprising.”

Newsome said she was disappointed that voting by mail was the most encouraged method to vote nationwide, rather than early voting. However, she acknowledges that there is some appeal to voting by mail in cases with “a historically long ballot, which can be daunting, so you don’t feel like you have time to research ahead,” she said. “Instead, with a mail-in ballot, you can have just your ballot at home and take your time with your research.” But with an increase in vote-by-mail ballots and a faulty infrastructure to handle them, Newsome explained that “by consequence, we had a flurry of mail-in ballots not counted.”

Newsome views the news about Parkland ballots as a symptom of deeply rooted institutional issues that marginalizes young voters. “Lawmakers knew what groups would be affected when they instituted the [signature] law. It’s an effect of those systematic changes.”

So long as young people are systematically silenced on issues of gun violence through the electoral process, Parkland will continue to be profoundly affected by its dark history of gun violence.

And the polls are not the only place this darkness is manifesting. Last month, over the weekend of March 25, two young people from Parkland took their own lives. Nineteen-year-old Sydney Aiello was a senior at Douglas when the shooting occurred and was close friends with one of the victims, Meadow Pollack. Sixteen-year-old Calvin Desir was a sophomore at Douglas High who survived the shooting, according to the Miami Herald. An NPR report speculated that survivor’s guilt played a role in their deaths. It is not only young people that suffer from the aftermath of school shootings. The New York Times reported that same weekend that Jeremy Richman—father of Sandy Hook victim Avielle Richman—also took his own life.

A year ago, in the wake of the Parkland shootings, lawmakers approved a $69 million budget for mental health services in Florida, with $4 million allocated specifically to Broward County School District. However, according to the Tampa Bay Times, the legislation gave no specific direction for Florida schools to consider suicide prevention efforts.

After the suicides, Parkland parents, school officials, and others called an emergency meeting to brainstorm how to respond and reach out to others at risk. The Eagles’ Haven Community Wellness Center in Parkland, founded in response to the shooting, expedited its opening. But more help is still needed. NPR reports that despite these efforts, only a fraction of those affected by Parkland shootings have actually sought counseling. Town officials are encouraging parents to initiate these difficult yet necessary dialogues about mental health with their children.

Becker was devastated by the news of the recent suicides and empathizes with the mental health struggles of those in Parkland. “My cousin had PTSD for a long time. These are the things you don’t hear about,” she said. “Teachers are heartbroken. That’s happening and nobody really thinks about it.”

Trauma remains an active presence in the Parkland community and cannot be pushed aside just because the shooting has left the news cycle. Over the past year, young people have channeled their anger through political engagement. In fact, CIRCLE has found data indicating a strong connection between cynicism and political engagement in the youth movement in Parkland. “Young people reported feeling more and more cynical than they did in 2016. People who reported feeling the most cynical were also most likely to vote. So they were really fired up,” Lundberg said.

The data from the 2018 election reveals a palpable change in potential for youth political engagement. Kiesa talks about the necessity for youth work to be supported, both on a national and community level, especially looking towards the 2020 election. “We are particularly concerned about young people having opportunities to have an impact on issues and know that their voice matters regardless in what community they’re from.”

Where there should be opportunities for young people to have an impact on a political level, we instead find barriers. In theory, voting is a system through which people can directly impact the people who will fight for and represent them. Voting failed young people in Broward County, whose fears and anger about gun violence were met inadequately by election officials. And while these officials fail to take appropriate action, more lives have been lost. Young people’s cries are loud, their action is present, yet their votes are not being counted. Government action needs to match the vigor of these young voices. Existing systems such as the voting-by-mail process, which are meant to make voting more accessible, need to assure that young people’s voices are accounted for. “There has to be deliberate efforts to young people of outreach to make sure the system is welcoming and people know how to navigate it,” Kiesa emphasized.

Despite the many challenges they face, young people continue to take action. On February 12, a project was launched by youth activists that both demands accountability from higher institutions of power and honors the humanity and pain of gun violence tragedies. “Since Parkland” is a national project started by over 2000 teen reporters documenting children killed by gun violence in the year following the Parkland shooting. Included in the project are the stories of the victims of school shootings, armed domestic violence, drug homicides, unintentional discharges, and stray bullets. This project is ongoing. On their website, student journalists tell us, “We all remember Parkland. We’re still frightened. Frustrated. Angry. But if this project has taught us anything, it’s that we’re not powerless.”

We must continue to stay angry, refuse to be silenced, and engage critically with our political systems. “They try to reinforce this idea [that] your vote won’t matter, and that is one of the most destructive things possible,” Tolbert said. As students, we deserve justice.

Alyssa Alhadeff, Martin Duque Anguiano, Nicholas Dworet, Jaime Guttenberg, Luke Hoyer, Cara Loughran, Gina Montalto, Joaquin Oliver, Alaina Petty, Meadow Pollack, Helena Ramsay, Alex Schachter, Carmen Schentrup, Peter Wang, Chris Hixon, Aaron Feis, Scott Beigel. These were lives lost to gun violence that could have been prevented through stricter gun laws and reform. Young people from Parkland and across the nation are angry and hurting. They want representatives who will advance legislation that can prevent the next school shooting and can prevent another community from suffering their same trauma. So, why aren’t their votes being counted?