Ammaarah Khan and Ashley Garcia are two high school seniors coming from opposite ends of the country with one very important interest in common: They are counting down the days to cast their first ballots, just like thousands of other young people across the country. Forty years ago, students and educators joined forces and fought to give 18-year-olds the right to vote with the passage of the 26th Amendment, and today, Rock the Vote, in partnership with the National Education Association, is launching the first annual Democracy Day to invite thousands more young people to the conversation on the importance of civic engagement and voting. Rock the Vote briefly chatted with both Ammaarah and Ashley to find out what issues were most important to them.
Rock the Vote: What problems are facing your neighborhood that you would like to see improved?
Ammaarah Khan: New Jersey has been tightening its belt and cutting funds that impact education in all forms. In a town as large as Edison, these cuts hurt us. They cut clubs and teachers and slashed funding for many programs and classes that built students as individuals. Our schools are overcrowded and are slowly falling apart because we have no money to restore them. Edison students care about their neighborhood. They care about their education. I care. My only dream is that people will realize the importance of education and put some time into improving the infrastructure of the school instead of constantly lambasting them with ridicule.
Ashley Garcia: In Spring Hill, just taking a walk down the street displays two major problems in our community: inadequate public transportation and a lack of sidewalks. I have resided in the town for nearly eleven years, but have seen little effort to find any solutions to these problems. Our current busing system rarely runs and has a limited number of routes, making it impossible to depend on the bus as a reliable form of transportation. Not only is improved public transportation necessary in times of high gas prices, but also vital as we transition into a time of greater energy efficiency. As for sidewalks, kids who want to ride their bikes around their neighborhoods and men and women who want to get a morning workout through the community have few options, which has led to many safety issues. Even more importantly, since the beginning of the recent recession, Spring Hill has seen a failing economy that has brought huge unemployment along with it. It is time for something to be done to bring Spring Hill back from the recession it has been in for years before it's simply too late for the area to survive.
RTV: Do you think your elected officials are doing a good job talking to young people about issues that are important to them?
AK: In the beginning, I began to give up hope because I believed that my elected officials no longer cared about the students. However, earlier this year the New Jersey state legislature, headed by Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono, held a town council meeting on the impact of budget cuts at my high school. Crammed in a high school auditorium, Senator Buono listened carefully to students and actively responded to their concerns. I think the elected officials in my district are trying to reach out, but I believe some other officials in my state are out of touch with us.
AG: As I have become more politically involved in my community, I have been stunned by the lack of attention our politicians give our youth. Especially in my community, I have yet to see a single instance in which my elected officials have sought after the opinions of the area's youth and asked what issues we believe need to be fixed. There seems to be a belief that young people are apathetic and indifferent about government and politics, but if we are asked what we think needs to be done to help our community, we'll tell you. Young people are not just teenagers and college students who like to go to the beach and play video games, we have opinions and views that need to be heard in order to for elected officials to represent the community fully and truly.
RTV: The 26th Amendment gave 18-year-olds the right to vote. Why is this right important to you?
AK: My right to vote defines me. Ever since I was a young child, all I looked forward to was turning 18 and being able to vote. When I turned twelve, I told the poll workers my parents needed help in the booth -- and election days become holidays for me. The competition, the passion, the feeling that a difference can be made through a vote. Just last month, I turned 18. The first thing I did was send in my voter registration form. The first election I will be able to vote in will be the school board election on April 27. Knowing that I will finally be able to have a say in my community means so much to me. I feel that now I can make a difference, no matter how small. I have a lot of ideas to share and opinions to talk about, and I feel as though voting is just the first step on this road to making my voice heard.
AG: Although I am still a few months shy of turning 18, the 26th amendment has made a huge impact in my life. The right to vote is arguably the most important right given to the people in this country because it empowers and inspires its citizens to have the liberty to choose their leaders. I cannot imagine being forced to wait until my 21st birthday to mark a ballot. Even though 18 can seem like a young age to make a decision that will collectively impact the entire nation, it allows young people to take action and get involved in an arena they might not otherwise enter if forced to wait three more years. The 26th Amendment has allowed youth participation in our country and forced our elected officials to take a greater interest in their young voters. I look forward to the day I walk into my polling location for the first time to make my voice heard.
RTV: What do you think is stopping young people from voting?
AK: Maybe it's the process, or a lack of motivation. I am spearheading a voter registration assembly at my high school to make everything that much easier: distributing the forms, walking my peers through the process, and mailing the forms out for everyone. This eliminates almost every piece of work for them. By motivating them at the assembly, I hope to instill a lifelong belief in the civic duty to vote. Once a person realizes the true importance of voting, then I honestly think it is impossible not to vote.
AG: Even with a lower voting age and increased functions of technology available for youth participation, members of the young community continue to show low voter turnout across the nation. Every day in school, I sit among peers who see voting as a waste of time, as something reserved only for older people. At the time in your life when acne, dating, and what happened on "Jersey Shore" consume your every moment, it seems impossible to focus on what is going on politically in your community and country. Combined with the lack of recognition by the older members in our society and elected officials, the youth have been isolated into their own worlds, making many feel like our opinions don't matter and that we can't make a difference. We need to fix this and let young people know their voices are just as important as the voices of everyone else.
RTV: What do you think is the best way to get students excited about voting?
AK: The best way to get students excited to vote is to show them why voting is so important. Explaining why voting is an essential part of our democracy and highlighting how their votes are directly related to important decisions being made locally and nationally would motivate young people to turn out to the polls in far greater numbers.
AG: As lower numbers students turn out to vote on Election Day, it is necessary that we reverse this and mobilize them as one of the most energetic and active forces in the country. When motivating our student population, I believe it is important to allow them to first see how important they are to society and to the political system by explaining how voting affects them and how important their votes really are. By engaging them in their civic duty to their communities and country, we will create a better environment where students know that their voices and votes really matter.
It's clear young people are ready to have a profound impact on their country, but without being invited to participate, it's sometimes difficult to find the best avenues for participation. With the help of civically engaged students like Ammaarah, Ashley, and thousands more that Rock the Vote's Democracy Day program will reach by the end of the school year, the Millennial generation will be prepared to voice their opinions as a vital part of our country's democracy. To participate in Democracy Day, sign up at DemocracyDay.com, and read more about it here.