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Young Voters In Washington State Swing District

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We came to Washington's 3rd Congressional District in the southwestern part of the state because it's one of those places in the country that analysts are now calling purple, meaning Republicans and Democrats are both competitive. And Washington state allow 17-year-olds to register to vote as long as they'll turn 18 by Election Day in November.

We specifically wanted to hear from young voters on this trip, so we traveled to Longview, Wash., for a visit to Lower Columbia College, where the baseball team was warming up to the music of one of the school's more famous alums, the former bass player with Nirvana.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SMELLS LIKE TEEN SPIRIT")

NIRVANA: (Singing) The lights out, it's less dangerous. Here we are now. Entertain us.

MARTIN: This community college has students from all different backgrounds - students still in high school, those returning to school, those needing extra help. Their varied needs are reflected in the student union, where we passed a veterans center and got a tour of the college's food pantry.

ROSIE GRAFF: We just got a refrigerator, which is so exciting. So we can give away milk, eggs and butter. Students can come...

MARTIN: One of our tour guides was Rosie Graff. She's 17 and still in high school. But at the same time, she's taking classes here as part of Washington state's Running Start program, where she can earn college credits. And she's a member of the student government here at Lower Columbia. For Rosie, part of the appeal of the job is showing students how to get better connected with the community.

GRAFF: It's really easy for students to just go through the daily grind. You know, they show up, they go to classes, they do homework. Student government has two parts. You know, we want them to get involved in clubs and know that there's more to school. And part of that is getting involved with the government, knowing that there's more to what you're doing than just going to school. And I think when they see other students have that enthusiasm, they realize they can, too.

MARTIN: Rosie uses her enthusiasm to advocate for measures she hopes will benefit students directly - pushing bills in the state legislature that could lead to cheaper textbooks or to make it easier for students to get food. But she's also encouraging her peers to engage more with national politics and take advantage of the fact that Washington state makes it easy to vote early by mail. Most people here do exactly that.

So in this presidential election year, Washington state primary day is this Tuesday. We wanted to ask students at LCC what motivates young people to vote and what turns them off. For that, we headed to Joanna Mosser's classroom. She teaches political science here.

JOANNA MOSSER: So just as you were walking in, we were talking a little bit about this opportunity we have to communicate to current decision-makers. That - what I've heard in here is that we're feeling like there's something distinctive about our voice. So what is that thing that we would love to communicate to current decision-makers to invite them to make decisions that speak to and from your perspective? So we'll just open that up.

BAILIE STROZYK: Hi. I'm Bailie Strozyk, and I'm 20. And I will be voting in the next - in the presidential election. So one problem I really, really think is that a lot of people our age - we're not being represented because a lot of the people in current government are a lot older, and they don't necessarily understand, like, OK, this is how things are now. Another problem that I have is that a lot of people our age are also, oh, I don't have to vote because it's an older person problem, and my one vote won't count.

MARTIN: Can I follow up on that? What would it take to get more young people to vote?

STROZYK: In my opinion, seeing more involvement of young people in politics - volunteering, canvassing, phone calling - you know, stuff like that. It's just to kind of, like, remind everybody that it's not just for older people. It's for everybody. Like, it's just as much my right to vote as it is my grandparents', you know?

AYESHA AHMED: Ayesha Ahmed. I know that, like, voting is just one day. But, like, understanding, like, I work several jobs, and I go to school. And, like, me working all of those jobs is, like, very important to me paying my rent.

MOSSER: So if we structured politics in a different way to invite your participation...

AHMED: Yeah.

MOSSER: What might that look like?

AHMED: Make it a holiday. Yes. Big fan.

PATIENCE: I'm Patience, and I think in order to involve young people in, like, voting and to get them to vote, you have to involve them in the conversation. Because whenever I try to talk politics with older people, they shut me down because I'm young, and I don't know what I'm talking about. And then they'll go on to complain how I never involve myself in politics. So if you want me involved in politics, you need to welcome me into the conversation rather than saying that my opinions don't matter because I'm young.

LILYAN GRASSER: My name is Lilyan Grasser, and I think that it's really important to include politics in high school and maybe even primary school. And not just, like, the history of politics - like, current politics. And I think it would be really valuable because we would all be talking about it instead of just the grown-ups on Thanksgiving going to talk politics while the kids go do their own thing.

MARTIN: By the way, these students may be young, but they also remember more than some older people might give them credit for. Take Clarissa Escudero, who's still in high school while taking college-level courses here.

Can I just ask - so how old are you? You said you're 17.

CLARISSA ESCUDERO: Yep.

MARTIN: So you remember Obama, right?

CLARISSA: Yeah.

MARTIN: Was that exciting for you? Or do you - were you too little?

CLARISSA: I actually do remember it for some reason. I was in second grade when Obama was first elected. And, like, it was really cool. I feel like they rolled in the TV to my classroom, and we watched the election. It was really exciting. We, like, even wrote letters to - I don't even know if they mailed them, but we wrote letters to the president. And, like, I just remember everybody was talking about, oh, I want to be president. You know, how cool would that be? Like...

MARTIN: So what changed? I mean, if it was that exciting then, what happened?

CLARISSA: I really don't know. I think it probably has a lot to do with the demeanor of the president we have now.

MARTIN: But it turns people off. And does it - makes them want to not participate as opposed to makes them want to participate to make a change is kind of what I hear you saying. Why do you think that is?

CLARISSA: I don't know. You would think that if somebody sees something they didn't like, they would want to do something to counteract that. But I think it's kind of, like, well, I don't really like what's going on with that situation, so I'm just going to separate myself from the issue of the whole.

MAKENNA CRANDELL: Makenna Crandell. So to kind of get people to come out, make it an incentive to come to the polls to vote. You know, Joanna brought us doughnuts today to come here.

(LAUGHTER)

CRANDELL: People just want to be - you know, they want to be valued. You know, if you're just coming to the polls, you're standing in a line for I don't even know how many hours, at least you'll go home with a doughnut. Like...

(LAUGHTER)

CRANDELL: Like, just give them a little bit of an incentive to say, hey, I did something good today.

MARTIN: Do you get a sticker with your mail-in ballot? You don't get a sticker. That's so sad.

PATIENCE: I'm Patience. And to me, politics for, like, older people is, like, a fun little discussion to have among your peers. But for younger people, a disagreement isn't a disagreement. Like, when we talk about politics, we're talking about our lives. Like, when I talk about the state of rights for LGBT people in the country, I'm not talking about this so you can agree or disagree with my lifestyle. I'm talking about this because I could be denied a job because I'm part of LGBT community. I could be denied housing in almost - like, 20 to 30 states.

So, like, when young people are talking about politics, we're not talking about, like, fun things. We're debating for our livelihood for people that disagree. And it's really frustrating because when I want to talk about these issues, I want to talk about them because you vote more than I do because I'm young, and I just got to the voting world, so please listen and hear us out so we can just basically survive like you guys do.

REED BRAUNE: I'm Reed Braune. I am 17. To go sort of off of what Patience was saying, along with some of the earlier stuff where we were talking about how a lot of older people felt, like, invited into politics, I think young people are drawn to politics now a lot of times out of fear.

Instead of feeling invited, like, they're scared that they're going to get shot in school, or they're worried about the earth becoming uninhabitable, or they're worried about not having access to health care. And I feel that that same fear that draws people in also pushes people away and maybe in a way that it didn't push in people in the past.

MARTIN: On that point - the power of fear - there were at least two other students in the lecture hall who mentioned the fear they've experienced of being shot while at school. One of them was 16-year-old Running Start student Michael Anne Mace.

MICHAEL ANNE MACE: It feels very dangerous for me to go to school.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you about that. Do you do drills and all that? Do you all have to do active shooter drills and things like that?

MICHAEL ANNE: Yes. There's a couple different drills. Sometimes, we just have, like, lock-ins where we just close the doors. Like, if there's something in the neighborhood, then we just lock all the doors. And then there's the ALICE drills. That's, like, the hunker down, grab something to throw at somebody if they try to come in.

MARTIN: How does that make you feel to do that, to have to practice that?

MICHAEL ANNE: It's very scary. My school - I'm about my freshman year, so three years ago - we actually did have a full-down lockdown where somebody had an airsoft gun in their backpack. And so we had SWAT teams come in. We had all the nearby town's police. And so I just didn't really feel comfortable in school anymore, and that's why I'm in the Running Start program and here.

MARTIN: Wow. I'm sorry to hear that.

MICHAEL ANNE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Wow. Wow. I don't even know what to say. That's crazy.

MICHAEL ANNE: Yeah. I just feel like all the high school students - we all have, like, a pack mentality where we're all trying to work together. And I feel like some people don't think the gun issue is so big. But, like, if you watch people - whenever a door opens, everybody looks. Everybody's trying to figure out who's who and, like, who might be dangerous in the class if they get mad.

MARTIN: So this is not some hypothetical to you. You've grown up with this. Yeah. Wow. Well, thank you for sharing that. Yeah.

Michael Anne Mace says that's one reason why gun control is a big issue for her. Another student, Ayesha Ahmed, thinks that young people would vote more if politics were more inclusive and respectful of communities of color. Longview's population is more than 80% white, and she worries that politicians don't tend to see problems when they think they only affect minorities.

AHMED: A lot of it has to do with how much of the population is affected and how important we think those populations are. A lot of people in this country will say that we have a gun problem. And we haven't - like, we didn't say that there was, like, a huge gun problem when it came at the mass destruction of black and brown bodies. We didn't say that we need to take care of our environment when we put mills and factories near communities of color.

And so I think that when we have, like, this perception of, like, what issues are important, I think that it's also from the perception of, like, what important populations are being affected.

MARTIN: Most of the students we met during our visit to Lower Columbia College were excited about being able to cast their ballots in November, even if some were disappointed that the presidential race is now effectively down to three white men in their 70s. But they all had great ideas about how to encourage more of their peers to engage politically and to vote. We'll give the last word on that to 18-year-old Lilyan Grasser.

GRASSER: I think people are really afraid to spark conversations about politics, especially younger people, because - like, I have a family where it is one side or the other, and if we talk about it, we're going to fight, and it's really bad. And I think we should try to normalize agreeing to disagree and trying to find what is valuable in both sides and what's valuable in someone who disagrees with you - like, what's valuable in their opinion and what you can learn from that.

And I think it would inspire more young people to get out there and be active and vote if they weren't shot down when they had a disagreeing view, if we could just learn to accept that we're different people, we're going to have a different view of each other and of politics and what's going on. So we should try to find what's valuable in both sides.

MARTIN: Lilyan Glasser is a student at Lower Columbia College in Longview, Wash. We met her and her classmates last week as we visited Southwestern Washington state to talk to young voters ahead of the primary there this Tuesday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.