Local elected officials encouraged students to exercise their right to vote during an assembly Friday at Southwest High School.
State Rep. Frank Hornstein, state Sen. Scott Dibble, U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison and Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon implored the Southwest junior and senior classes to be active in the political process. Civil rights leader Josie Johnson also spoke.
“The people who came before you fought and they gave everything they had to make a better Minneapolis (and) a better America,” Ellison said. “And we are expecting you to do the same thing.”
The assembly came four days before Minnesota holds its 2018 precinct caucuses. The meetings, run by the state’s political parties, present voters with their first opportunity to endorse candidates, select delegates and set goals and values that could become party platforms.
This year’s caucuses will include a preference ballot for the candidates whom voters want their parties to support for governor.
Minnesota has a strong tradition of high voter turnout. Nearly three-quarters of eligible voters in the state cast a ballot in the 2016 general election, the highest proportion of any state in the country. Simon said that Minnesota was tops in the nation in voter turnout for nine straight elections before 2014.
More of that turnout comes from older voters than from younger voters. Just about 50 percent of eligible voters ages 18 and 19 cast ballots in the 2016 election, according to Simon’s office, compared to nearly 90 percent of eligible voters ages 65 to 69.
Simon, who has served as Secretary of State since 2015, said reasons for Minnesota’s strong voter turnout include the state’s elected officials and how easy it is to vote here.
He noted that people can register to vote by going to mnvotes.org and filling out an online form.
“Most of you could do it in two or three minutes,” he told the students.
Simon also noted Minnesota’s no-excuses absentee voting policy, which allows anyone to request that an absentee ballot be mailed to them or vote absentee in person. He added that as part of the culture in Minnesota, “we care about elections. We learn about it in school. We know that they’re consequential. We know they’re significant.”
Simon said people should vote for the reasons Johnson expressed — namely, that people have fought and died for the right to vote in the U.S. But he also told the students that they should vote because it’s in their own self-interest.
“I can’t sum it up any better than words I saw on a T-shirt,” Simon said. “It said, ‘failure to vote is not an act of rebellion. It’s an act of surrender.'”
‘You’ve got to be involved’
Ellison, who has represented Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District since 2007, said that throughout human history, autocratic rulers have often controlled governments, mostly through force.
“It’s critically important to understand that you all through Democracy have the ability to go to the richest, most powerful person and tell them what they got to do,” he said.
He said the students can tell “the biggest company owner in the whole country,” through their elected representatives, that they “cannot put pollution through that smokestack (and) that they have to have an immigration system that is fair to everybody and does not kick out our DACA kids.”
“If you are concerned about better wages, … if you are concerned about climate change, … if you all believe that immigration should change to make sure that people who are here can stay here … if you believe all these things, then you have to vote,” he said.
Ellison added that he and the other officials aren’t telling the students the person or party for whom to vote. But, he told the students, they may end up with someone in office who they don’t want if they do not vote.
“My point is: you’ve got to be involved,” he said.
Southwest senior Piper D’Emanuele helped organize the assembly in conjunction with Hornstein, with whom she has interned for about a year. She said they’ve always talked about doing something at Southwest to increase voter turnout.
“We just thought it’d be great if we got all the juniors and seniors to come and listen to some really inspirational speakers and get excited about going out and voting,” she said.
D’Emanuele said she personally did not see many students vote in the 2017 elections for mayor and city council. She said she thinks more students will attend their precinct caucuses because of the assembly.
“I think that basically everyone who can will go vote, because this was very inspirational, at least for me,” she said.
A lot of people who weren’t planning on voting came up to talk with the elected officials after the assembly, senior Billie Forester added. She noted that a lot of the juniors who can’t vote in this election are planning to volunteer at caucuses.
Students at Southwest are very opinionated, D’Emanuele said, but “have trouble tying in the political aspect,” according to Forester.
“I think there’s not as many opportunities to get involved that are really advertised,” she said. “A lot of people just don’t know about it.”
Both she and D’Emanuele said more Southwest students have been involved politically since the 2016 election. Forester said that election helped found the Minnesota High School Democrats, a statewide chapter of the High School Democrats of America.
“There’s a lot of kids who didn’t know where to go with the passion that they had,” said Forester, who serves on the state chapter’s board. “so we tried to create a more organized basis so that we could all communicate.”
The organization this year is working on a policy around automatic voter registration when kids turn 18, Forester said.