Young voters ages 18 to 24 are the least likely to vote in midterm elections – just 16 percent of them cast ballots in 2014.
Frida Sanchez wants to change that. For months, the 19-year-old Johnson County Community College student has been registering other young people to vote.
“These kids want to feel included but also don't want to get involved,” Sanchez said. “And I think they just need a push.”
But Sanchez can't actually vote Nov. 6.
The personal is political
The day before voter registration closed in Missouri, Sanchez was in the lunchroom at Lincoln College Preparatory Academy, one of the Kansas City Public Schools, making a final appeal to seniors. She got up and made an announcement on the PA system, but she didn’t have many takers. Most of the 18-year-olds at Lincoln had registered at another voter engagement event at their school weeks earlier.
But as kids started getting up to throw away their trash, one young woman came over to talk to Sanchez. She told Sanchez she couldn’t vote, either.
“Because they call me illegal,” Sandy quipped. (KCUR isn’t using Sandy’s last name because she is undocumented.)
Sandy said few of her classmates are politically engaged.
“Only in my classes where we have government or that, that’s the only time we hear politics, but that’s about it,” Sandy said.
Sanchez knows what it’s like to have politics upend your life. When she started her first semester at Donnelly College last fall, she had DACA, an Obama-era protection that allowed thousands of young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to work and go to school legally. Then President Trump abruptly halted the program.
“I felt like I had no motivation and like there was no more future for me,” Sanchez said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do without school. I couldn’t work anymore either.”
So Sanchez dropped out.
Convincing young people to vote
Five months passed before Sanchez was able to renew her DACA. During that time, she went to Washington, D.C., with student activists to rally for a path to citizenship for childhood arrivals. The experience changed her.
“Hey, you don't have status, but you know, there still are opportunities for you,” Sanchez said. “Finally, when I could renew again, I kind of knew what I wanted to do, and it was like, I'm going to go to school. I'm going to make it happen no matter what happens.”
Once Sanchez was able to renew, she enrolled at JCCC, where she’s studying digital media and web development. She also started volunteering with advocacy organizations that register other young people to vote.
“It’s always amazing having those conversations,” Sanchez said. “I had one with this girl who can vote – her family’s from Guatemala. She was telling me, ‘Hey, my mom’s been telling me to vote, but I don’t think I should just because I don’t think my little vote matters.’”
So Sanchez tells these wouldn’t-be first-time voters what it’s like to be a person of color who can’t vote – what it’s like to watch from the sidelines while other people enact policies that affect her life. And she tries to get them thinking about the issues that matter to them.
“What do you care about?” she’ll ask. “What boils your blood?”
Sharing persuasive stories
Sanchez isn’t the only young immigrant who can’t vote who is busy encouraging others to do so.
“We don’t get to vote, but we do have a say in it because we get to share stories and we get to tell people to vote for folks that represent those values that we have,” Alex Martinez, director of the Kansas Missouri Dream Alliance, said.
According to Martinez, conversations around voting can be tough because those in his community who can vote don’t always grasp why they should. That’s the situation one of Martinez’s friends found himself in with his own siblings.
“And so he had to have a really hard conversation with them about, hey, your vote matters because your parents and me depend on that. Our rights depend on it,” Martinez said.
As for Frida Sanchez, she has a younger sister who was born in the U.S. Growing up, Sanchez didn’t really worry about her family being seperated, but it’s something her activism has made her think about.
“My family's always been very supportive and have always pushed me to do what I love,” she said. “But yeah, there's definitely a fear of like, hey, Frida, you know, slow your roll. Like, what are you getting yourself into?”
Sanchez’s sister isn’t 18 yet, but sometimes she’ll say she wishes she could give her vote to her older sister.
Elle Moxley covers education for KCUR. You can reach her on Twitter @ellemoxley.