What’s In a Vote?

Turns out: A lot. Santa Clara University students discuss how Gen Z feels about voting ahead of Super Tuesday.

What’s In a Vote?
Image courtesy Pexels.

As soon as she could drive, Gabrielle Pitre ’26 pre-registered to vote. She counted herself lucky to live in Washington, one of 18 states and the District of Columbia that allow 16-year-olds to pre-register, putting them on a list to be sent a ballot upon turning 18. For Pitre, voting is an elemental part of being a citizen, and her right to it as a person of color was hard-won.

“My parents have told me that our ballots are soaked in blood,” Pitre says. “Referring to the legacy of Black Americans who were murdered for advocating for the right to vote, and just for trying to vote in general. So the right to vote is very sacred to me.”

Of course, not every college student is so motivated to exercise their civic duty. As Election Day 2024 nears—and California holds its primaries on March 5, which is also Super Tuesday—political scientists like Sekou Franklin ’94 hope to encourage young people to vote. Especially in light of ongoing voter suppression.

Franklin, a professor of political science at Middle Tennessee State University, returned to his alma mater in February to discuss with Santa Clara students why voting matters.

In his talk, Sekou explained how for so long voting in America was open only to white men. In 1870, the 15th Amendment extended voting rights to men of all races yet African Americans were often blocked from casting ballots due to various registration requirements, poll taxes, and literacy tests. During that time and especially after the mid-1870s, states implemented racial segregation laws that restricted and rescinded voting rights. While voting rights have seen significant improvements since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, voter suppression remains a concerning reality.

According to Franklin, some contemporary restrictions include closing polling stations, strict residency requirements, photo ID laws, limited voter registration outreach, and excessive purge laws. Protecting the right to vote then requires a holistic approach including voter registration, education, get-out-the-vote activities, election protection initiatives that address voting irregularities, and voting rights litigation.

“These pillars need to be united as a framework for voter justice to protect the right to vote,” Franklin says. “With all that, the best antidote to voter suppression, vote denial, and vote dilution is aggressive voter turnout that occurs every election cycle.”

But getting aggressive voting turnout among young folks has been a difficult chore for generations. Gen Z is no exception.

Sekoufranklin
Sekou Franklin ’94 argues that the struggle for voting rights is just as important today as it was in the 1960s. Photo courtesy SCU.

In 2022, the national youth turnout (among ages 18-29) was 23%, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. That’s lower than the historic 28% during the 2018 election cycle but better than 13% in 2014. California saw a 22% voter turnout among youth.

Franklin believes that one of the reasons for this is that encouraging people to vote is difficult when they can’t see how voting directly impacts them.

“Change is slow and incremental,” Franklin says. “As such, people are quickly disillusioned by the political process, which then discourages them from voting. Some people come from communities or families that have low voter participation. Some people see politicians as corrupt and petty–perceptions that are reinforced on the nightly news.”

Franklin And Students
Sekou Franklin ’94 (far back, middle) joined students, including MacKenzie Fisher ’26 and Gabrielle Pitre ’26 (front row, third and fourth and from left), and faculty from the Department of Political Science for lunchtime conversations before delivering the 2024 Eric Hanson Alumni Speaker Series talk. Photo courtesy SCU.

MacKenzie Fisher ’26 thinks that, additionally, her peers are likely pessimistic about voting because they’re unconvinced their individual vote can actually make a difference.

“A lot of people feel like voting is meaningless and pointless because you’re like a water drop in an ocean,” Fisher says. “And while that is true, it’s still those water drops that create the ocean. I think it’s important to recognize your power as a U.S. citizen.”

Plus, Fisher points out, we’re living in a gerontocracy: with the average age of the Senate hovering around 64 years old and the average age of Congress being 58 years old. That’s 20 years older than the median age in the U.S., according to FiscalNote. “Congress is older than ever,” declared one NPR article. No wonder young people think there’s nothing for them in politics.

But recognizing this disparity and understanding the need for representation are what Fisher and Pitre both believe can encourage voting. And in turn, voter access intersects with so many other aspects of life that young people do care about, from criminal justice reform and climate change policy to police accountability and affordable housing.

For Franklin, when students see just how much their one vote can impact laws and policy that impact them, that’s when they begin to truly see the value in voting.

“Students have power,” Franklin says. “Most students don’t know this, but they can impact local and state elections. Students at SCU may be able to determine a city council race if the vote is effectively mobilized. Given the electoral laws in California, students can also gather enough momentum to spearhead ballot measures. These issues are important.”

Registered to vote in California? Find your polling place at the CA Secretary of State website.

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