The March for Our Lives protest started at Austin City Hall and stretched down Congress Avenue, ending at the Texas Capitol. Protestors demanded that lawmakers take action to end gun violence in Texas and beyond.

Emily Bellinghausen

The Turnout: Students participate in political process

Students participate in activism, political organizing in place of voter participation

December 12, 2018

Rigged system. Lame candidates. Political gridlock.

These are all reasons why young people say they often do not vote. In the past elections, voter turnout in Texas was in general and especially among young people, very low.

During the 2012 elections, only 46.9 percent of eligible voters had participated, ranking the state at 48th out of 50 states and D.C. During 2016, only about 51.2 percent of eligible voters participated, leaving the state in the same low ranking. During the 2014 midterm election, about 28.6 percent of Texans participated.

In addition to this, national voter turnout for the 18-24 year old demographic tends to garner similarly low numbers. In 2012, 38 percent of eligible voters in the age group voted. During the 2014 midterm election, the percentage more than halved to 15.9 percent. In the 2016 elections, the turnout rate was 39.4 percent.

Senior Michael Garcia, who is a member of the Austin Corps internship program at Akins, said that young people tend to not vote because they feel their vote doesn’t matter.

“Students don’t care because they think that the system is rigged,” Garcia said. “They think that one vote isn’t going to sway anything. They think that even if they do choose, all the candidates suck so it wouldn’t even be worth it and they stop caring.”

Austin Corps is an internship program that takes students from three high schools and teaches them to work in different city offices and how to get citizens involved in politics. Social studies teacher Linda O’Neal, who is the sponsor for Austin Corps, said she wanted to be an example to her students when she decided to run for Austin City Council this year “These internships help us to get real-life experience working with the government,” said Hailey Matteson, senior and Austin Corps intern.

In October, the organization partnered with the League of Women Voters to register eligible Akins seniors to vote. In addition to this, Austin Corps organized a mayoral candidate forum for students and community members to learn about the people looking to be the next leaders of city government.

“All of our events that we do are student planned,” Matteson said. “The mayoral forum was really cool. We got to have candidates come and have students learn about them.”

Senior Jordan Carlisle is registered to vote. He said that he was reluctant to vote because he felt uninformed, but thinks that it is important to do so.

“Everyone needs to vote because if we don’t then it would cause more problems in the long run,” Carlisle said.

Senior and Austin Corps intern Marissa Lugo said that being knowledgeable about politics is essential for newly eligible voters. She said that with knowledge comes a new interest in involvement and voting.

“You can’t really change anything if you don’t have the knowledge to,” Lugo said. ”You begin to get all this knowledge (about) what certain people do, such as the people in city council and the city manager, who actually does more than the mayor.”

This election, Travis County received record-breaking registration numbers. This year’s voter registration numbers were more than double the previous 2014 midterm election…

“The older generation is just getting older,” Evans said. “We’re the new phase of politics and I think it’s really important for us to show that. Whoever shows up to the ballot is who will be in charge.”

Garcia said that he advises new voters to vote for individuals who align with their beliefs and not be blinded by party lines. The “D” or “R” by a candidates name can be deceiving.

“Political parties are like a brand name,” Garcia said. “If one of the opposing candidates are better than the other, go for that one. Try to investigate what their actual point of view is.”

Evans said that voting is a vital power for young people to harness because it dictates their life going forward.

“It’s the future,” Evans said. “The future is in their hands and if they don’t vote then the future is not in their hands.”

Although it is the most direct way we can influence our government, voting is not the only way students can get involved in the political process. Many high school students were stirred into taking action in response to the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida in February.

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Gun Violence

Within the first 21 weeks of 2018, 23 school shootings had occurred which equates to roughly one shooting per week. Calls for new gun control laws were already highly debated but this mass rise of school shootings has pushed students to get involved because of the perceived lack of action by adults to take action to protect them.

All across the United States students walked out of classrooms in 2018 to protest gun violence. Akins was no exception to this. On February 26, Akins students organized a walkout in support of stricter gun control laws. This was only five days after Akins was forced into its own lockdown in response to death threats by a former student spotted on a school bus with ammunition.

Junior Elena Salinas was the lead organizer of the walkout.

Salinas’ first encounter with gun violence was a lockdown that happened in 2nd grade. The idea of it had been “pretty tame” until up to the Parkland shooting, she said. The whole shooting and the witnesses accounts really affected her, causing her to push for action.

The one thing I see in common with everyone is they need attention… and someone to listen, and understand them.”

— junior Elena Salinas

Even two weeks after the Akins lockdown it still caused her such emotional trauma to the point that she felt anxiety from just hearing the intercom beep at unusual times. However, it also caused her to get more involved with her community.

Salinas’ had even spoken in front of a crowd of protestors at the Capital about gun violence. When asked about her preparation, she said it was very last minute. She had the intention of putting out some kind of message out there, and while knowing it was very irresponsible of her to wait until the last moment to work on it, she felt like the buildup to it was very worth it.

She expressed her experience with the lockdown here, and how it had affected her.

Another topic she discussed was her solution to the problem, was to show “kindness and empathy” to all sides — the victims and even the perpetrators who often are experiencing mental instability.

Salinas said the focus should be on finding solutions.

She says that we should take precautions and show empathy to everyone around us, no matter how they look, and what they say, and how they make you feel. No matter how they uncomfortable they make you feel.

“The one thing I see in common with everyone is they need attention… and someone to listen, and understand them,” Salinas said.

Politically, Salinas feels like our politicians are “lobbied” by special interests and that’s why they don’t do anything about gun violence. She said she believes they do not take action because of the money they receive from these special interest groups.

“We as students have substantially less control over our politicians, and country because (not all of us) can vote,” she said.

She finds the ones who don’t want us to be heard, came up with these laws in the first place.

“If students know about it, they can vote about it,” Salinas said.

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DACA

Many school-aged students have been stirred to action after the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016, and his subsequent actions affecting undocumented students.

In 2017, President Donald Trump planned to get rid of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which is an Obama Administration era program that protects hundreds of thousands of undocumented children in the United States. It allowed these students to enroll in a college, and legally have jobs which were renewable for a two year period. By getting rid of this program, Trump had nearly jeopardized the lives of over 700,000 undocumented individuals.

Pullquote Photo

The Democrats have been told, and fully understand, that there can be no DACA without the desperately needed WALL at the Southern Border and an END to the horrible Chain Migration & ridiculous Lottery System of Immigration etc. We must protect our Country at all cost!”

— tweet by Donald Trump

The response was a massive uproar of young people. Not only were lawsuits filed by many organizations, but the citizens themselves, right down to the high school level, were strenuously protesting and finding ways, socially, to show their objection of the Trump Administration in defense of DACA.

All across Texas, just as in protests to gun violence, students walked out of classrooms in order to protest for the protection DREAMers, including at Akins High School. Members of the University of Texas-based University Leadership Initiative, an organization that advocates for undocumented students, were among the college-aged students who led the protests.

College and Career Center Counselor Sarah Simmons said that when she spoke to students about what to do if their DACA protection is lost, she encouraged action.

“We will protest,” Simmons said. “We will vote in politicians who will fight for the rights of vulnerable individuals. We will not remain quiet. We will use the courts in any way possible.”

The cries of the people and the opinions of fellow politicians made Trump’s decision and own opinions wavering and unsteady. Eventually, in April of 2017, the U.S. court ordered the Trump administration to fully reinstate the DACA program. Though the program itself may be in an uncertain and frozen state, its continued presence is due to action on the part of American activists and lawyer.

“For five years, the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), working with allies such as the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and the Texas Organizing Project, has led the fight to boost compliance with a Texas law that requires every public and private high school in the state to distribute voter registration applications to eligible students at least twice each school year. Enacted in 1985, that law has the potential to make Texas a leader in youth registration and turnout.” – 2018 High School Voter Registration Compliance Report

“Instead, as TCRP’s (Texas Civil Rights Project) research has repeatedly made clear, most recently in a report it published in September 2017 and now in this updated report, compliance by high schools with the law has been abysmal.” – 2018 High School Voter Registration Compliance Report

“At a minimum, therefore, two-thirds of Texas public high schools, with 183,421 seniors, continue to fail to take the first basic step in complying with the high school voter registration law: requesting forms from the Secretary of State. As a result, hundreds of thousands of eligible young voters may be missing the chance to register to vote.” – 2018 High School Voter Registration Compliance-Report

 

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Austin Corps

Senior Hailey Matteson said the mayoral forum that Austin Corps hosted was “really cool.”

“We got to have candidates come and have students learn about the candidates. All of our events that we do are student planned,” she said.

Austin Corps also planned a student voter registration drive where it got all of the eligible seniors at Akins to register to vote.

Matteson said they were inspired by their Austin Corps teacher who was running for a spot as a City Councilmember in District 9 spot.

“The Austin Corps is an internship program. It gets three different schools and takes students from those schools. It helps them learn about different municipal entities, how they get citizens involved, how they work in politics and how they really work in keeping our world going such as water, electricity and other things like that. It gets us set up to, in the spring, an intern with those companies and help us to get real-life experience working with the government on a municipal level.””

— senior Hailey Matteson

“Before this class, I didn’t want to have anything to do with politics but now, because of this class, I want to be involved in politics. If you’re a politically motivated person this would be a good internship for you.”

“It was the first field trip where we went to meet the mayor. We learned about all the different policies that he was trying to get put into place for the city and we were learning about our district council members. It was really that conversation with the mayor, talking to him, seeing what he wanted to do for our city and then realizing that there are things that I wanted to do for the city. Things that I want to do to really help people and get involved. Politics is a really good way to do that.”

Students in the Austin Corps program go to Austin government departments so they can learn how the city works. By the second semester, students choose their three favorite departments and are then selected to intern at one of them.

“It starts with teenagers and younger generations because we’re starting to get to vote after we graduate,” senior Michael Garcia said. “The older generation is just getting older and was basically the new phase of politics and I think it’s really important for us to show that. Whoever shows up to vote is who will be in charge. ”

“I was very isolated first and Ms. Baeslack had asked me to join (the Austin Corps) because I was into politics but I was very low key about it. She realized that and told me to try out Austin Corps because she thought it would be a good fit for me and I totally agree now. We’ve talked to city leaders and organized the mayor forum.””

— senior Michael Garcia

Garcia said most students don’t care about politics because they think that the system is rigged.

“They think that one vote isn’t going to sway anything, they think that even if they do choose, all the candidates suck so it wouldn’t even be worth it and they stop caring.”

Another factor is time, Garcia said, because they don’t feel like they have an obligation to vote so they don’t do it.

Senior Marissa Lugo said she got involved in Austin Corps because she was already interested in politics.

“I think students should care politically because that’s them in every aspect of their life. For instance, if they wanted to vote on who they want in their district, the people that are going to help them are them. If they want to vote for a specific person who has the same views, that has the same specific wants as they do, they should support them.”

Austin Corps can help students now and into the future, Lugo said.

“As a senior, most people turn eighteen in their senior year. That’s when you can vote and that’s when you begin to get all this knowledge to know what certain people do, such as the people in the city council, the city manager who actually does more than the mayor.”

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