High-schoolers' excitement about voting is uplifting

High-schoolers' excitement about voting in an election that most people will skip is uplifting

In a city that hibernates through local elections, Miriam Antonio told me she couldn't wait to vote next Tuesday. The Fairfax High junior turned 18 this month, so this would be her first chance to cast a ballot.

Stop the presses, right?

Between 75% and 90% of registered voters have skipped recent local elections, and here was a youngster jumping at the chance.

"Are you already registered?" I asked.

"No," she said Monday afternoon when I reached her by phone. "But I think I can still register online."

Uh-oh, I thought, fearing she might have missed the deadline.

I had met Antonio at an L.A. Unified school board candidate forum in January. She was righteously indignant that two of the three candidates blew off the event.

Righteous indignation is a good thing, and we could use more of it around here. At that candidate forum, Antonio held forth on the importance of being engaged and involved in local affairs.

But just as I feared, a check with the county registrar revealed that new voters needed to register by Feb. 10 for the March 3 election.

Which, by the way, is insane. Are we in the dark ages or the digital age?

Last week, at a legislative hearing on how to increase voter turnout, one of the many suggestions was an automatic registration system like the one Oregon is putting into place. If you're old enough and qualify you'd be automatically signed up.

California Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), head of the Senate Elections Committee, told me he thinks same-day registration will also be a reality soon.

But not soon enough for Antonio.

"I actually really wanted to vote," a disappointed Antonio said when I met her at Fairfax after school let out. She told me she's been very busy, with a ton of nightly homework from her three Advanced Placement classes, or she would have looked into registration rules earlier.

"But it's my fault," she said.

I found her disappointment uplifting, if I can be selfish about it.

There's no shortage of people out there who can tell you why they're not going to make the effort to weigh in on school board, city council or other matters, and you've heard all the reasons ad nauseam. Too busy, don't like the candidates, they're all the same, nothing will change, yadda yadda and blah blah blah.

But I'd rather focus today on the likes of Antonio, a member of the United Way Student Leadership Program, which recruits students to get involved in community affairs. Two more members, Cindy Figueroa of Maywood and Beatriz Garcia of South Los Angeles, are both 18, registered and excited about voting for the first time Tuesday.

"I was a volunteer poll worker in the last election," said Figueroa, a student at LACES, the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies magnet. "There were 4,000 registered voters in my district, and 13 people voted while I was there from 8 till 3."

Though she was only 16, she was appalled.

"I knew I had to get involved," Figueroa said. Her biggest issue as a voter is public education, and she has advocated for a student voice on the L.A. Unified board. "What makes this election so important to me is that one vote, when the turnout numbers are so low, can really sway an election."

Figueroa attended a debate and said she's still sifting through what the candidates said, as well as researching their backgrounds and reading news accounts. One of the issues most important to her is lack of resources and upkeep, particularly at schools in her area.

"I would say that some of the facilities are worn down," she said, "and some of the conditions are horrible."

She also had this to say about candidates:

"As a student, I look for: Are they genuine? Do they really know the problems facing this community, and do they care to hear us out, or are they more interested in shoving an agenda down our throats? There has to be a connection between what the community wants and how they're going to help."

Garcia, who attends Dr. Maya Angelou Community High School, said she's taking this voting privilege very seriously and doing her homework. It's not lost on her, she said, that certain candidates might promise one thing but do another if elected.

"I'm kind of nervous," Garcia said. "I hope I make the right decisions in the end."

One of the duties of students in the leadership program is to try to get their peers more involved in politics and community affairs, but it's not easy. Garcia said she's heard all the excuses, but she counters with the argument that you have to speak up and be heard or none of your gripes will be addressed.

"You know, it really does matter because one vote can change the whole dynamic," she said.

By the way, Garcia — whose parents own a small restaurant and a flower shop — has applied to several colleges and wants to major in political science, then teach, or become a lawyer.

Figueroa — whose mom is a nurse and whose dad is a laborer — wants to go to college and study math, science, technology or engineering.

Antonio — whose single mother works a midnight shift for a janitorial service — hopes to go to UCLA, major in political science and then study constitutional law.

At Fairfax, we were tossing around ideas about how to get young people more tuned in to politics and the impact of public policy on their lives, and I asked if she thought it would help to have a campus club in which students debate election issues. They could probably have their own website with election and voter registration information, and get the word out through social media.

Antonio liked the idea and said she was going to pitch her principal.

So what exactly motivated her to become so political?

History, Antonio said. She was motivated by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Cesar Chavez, who addressed injustice and made lasting change.

Any chance Antonio might go into politics one day?

She smiled.

"That would be my dream job," she said.


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