by Colleen Flaherty
The 2012 election showed one thing clearly – don’t underestimate the youth vote. In every single swing state, President Barack Obama would have lost if just half of the youth vote stayed home or voted for Mitt Romney, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE).
David Tjaden, chairperson of the National Education Association Student Program, led the charge for politically active student members.
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“Young people do care about politics. I don’t care how many people try to tell us that we don’t,” said Tjaden. “I think there’s a new wave of civic engagement, and this idea of having a social duty to give back, to contribute. I think that’s why our NEA student members love to get so involved with all the community outreach things that we do.”
The NEA student program has more than 1,100 college campus chapters throughout the country. The program organized several “get out the vote” efforts, including a push right before Halloween called “Trick or Vote.”
“In four days, we organized 30 ‘Trick or Vote’ events on different campuses. It was completely student-led, student-motivated. In one night, we contacted 12,000 college students, a majority from battleground states.”
Many state chapters also actively campaigned for pro-education candidates and ballot measures. In Idaho and California, several propositions were on the ballots concerning education.
“[Students from California and Idaho] really took it on themselves to put in hours and hours of volunteer work. Starting back in the June, the Idaho chapter president was making 80 phone calls a night, five days a week.”
In both states, the anti-education ballots were defeated while the pro-education ones passed. “This really speaks to the work our members did,” said Tjaden.
Emily Oaks is chairperson of the Connecticut NEA student chapter and an elementary education major at Southern Connecticut State University. Like many of her peers, she felt deeply the importance of getting involved in this election.
“A lot of us are finishing out programs and will start teaching, and certainly the decisions that are made in the next few years will impact the way we get jobs, the way we keep our jobs, what we do in our classrooms,” she said. “There’s no doubt in my mind that everything that’s going on in politics now is crucial, just as important as the election was.”
While the age of social media has changed the landscape of campaigns, the emphasis remains on personal contact. According to data from CIRCLE, the most effective way to get people to the polls is by talking to them in person. That holds true for any demographic.
“Even with social media, we millennials really do understand the importance of face-to-face contact,” said Tjaden. We made about 100,000 touches just out of our national office. That doesn’t include any of the things on social media or the pushes out of any of our states.”
Tjaden also pointed out that many states passed or attempted to pass restrictive voter ID laws that were aimed at discouraging certain people from voting, young people included.
“What’s really striking to me is the fact that it wasn’t just that we showed up, but that we showed up despite all the tactics put in front of us to deny our right to vote.”
In fact, the youth turnout was 50 percent nationwide, but in many of the battleground states where these new laws were being tested, the turnout was 58 percent.
“To come out with those numbers really speaks not only to the youth in this country, but for the leadership and organization of organizations like ours.”
At an NEA Student Program conference following the election, Tjaden spoke with student members following the election about what drove them to the polls.
“Students were really hitting the polls hard for public education. In this election, they saw an opportunity. They saw candidates who really understand the value of public education, of public school teachers, and I think that’s what really motivated our students.”
What’s really imperative now, according to Tjaden, is that the student activists understand that just because the election is over doesn’t mean the work is finished.
“We’re riding a wave of momentum. We have to use that momentum to make sure that our politicians that have been elected to office are going to follow through and really put kids first, put students first.”