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Registering young voters has been a challenge to overcome amid pandemic

Rosie Zhou, 17, from left, Sophie Avery, 16, and Summer Sandstrom, 18, are members of the League of Women Voters’ Young Spokane Votes youth group and are working to get young people to vote during the pandemic.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Rosie Zhou, 17, from left, Sophie Avery, 16, and Summer Sandstrom, 18, are members of the League of Women Voters’ Young Spokane Votes youth group and are working to get young people to vote during the pandemic. (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Rosie Zhou can’t wait for her chance to vote.

Problem is, the Ferris High School senior won’t turn 18 until December.

However, thanks to a unique partnership with the League of Women Voters, she’s still making a difference by encouraging other teens and young adults to register for the election.

“Some people are frustrated because they may be thinking their vote doesn’t matter, or that their vote doesn’t make a difference,” Zhou said.

Along with Summer Sandstrom, a freshman at Eastern Washington University, and Sophie Avery, a junior at Lewis and Clark High School, Zhou is part of Spokane Youth Votes.

Together they’re trying to reach out and spread the word.

It hasn’t been easy.

Voter participation lags behind many other countries, especially among younger citizens, who have historically participated at much lower levels than older generations.

Americans ages 18 to 29 were the only age group to increase turnout between the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, the U.S. Census Bureau reported. But, at 46%, they still lagged behind older age groups, like the 45- to 64-year-olds, who had a 67% turnout rate.

Political campaigns often target their youth efforts to college campuses, where they can reach larger numbers of students more effectively. That can leave some young students without the support they say they need to register and to actually make it to the polls.

However, the League of Women Voters has made a strong effort in recent years, appearing in front of civics classes and registering students in the hallways.

The COVID-19 pandemic has undermined those efforts as schools have shut down, eliminating a key venue for in-person registration and discussions about voting for many students.

During November and December of last year, 17 league members presented to nearly 1,500 students in 51 classes in Spokane Public Schools and registered 504 students to vote.

Since the shutdown, those efforts have gone virtual.

“It becomes much more difficult because you can’t have the students,” said Kate Telis of the League of Women Voters.

Local youth answered in September with “The Power of Youth: Taking Action for a Better Future,” an online get-out-the-vote event.

Early in October they held a livestream event “Make Your Voice Heard.”

Spokane Youth Votes also has reached out to young people via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. They’ve also reached out to civics classes throughout Spokane Public Schools.

The local league translated the November Sample Ballot into several languages, including Spanish, Russian, Vietnamese, Arabic, Chinese and Swahili.

This League of Women Voters project was made possible by funding from the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund and the League of Women Voters of the Spokane Area. The translations were provided by Spokane International Translation.

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