Youth Voter Corps aims to get teens signed up to vote

Youth Voter Corps members Laila Smith and Kaia Dedek.

A grassroots campaign in the Hudson Valley has been working to help inform and register one of the most valuable reservoirs of voters — the county’s youth — using young people themselves.

The Youth Voter Corps, a derivative of a get-out-the-vote initiative Hudson Valley Votes, is a group made of high school students from across the Hudson Valley who’ve taken the task of registering young voters into their own hands. Ranging in age from 14 to 20 and hailing from 11 area high schools and college campuses, the majority of them are too young to vote themselves.

“What we have been seeing is that so many kids are really engaged now,” said Liam Kahn, 24, one of the co-creators of Hudson Valley Votes and an employee of the Juan Figueroa for Sheriff campaign. “We had our most successful Youth Voter Corps turnout just the other day, to hear from [state Assembly Democratic candidate] Aidan O’Connor and [County Election Commissioner] Ashley Dittus. We’ve seen these kids become so engaged and so interested in learning about the democratic process.”

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Kahn said a wide variety of ages and backgrounds make up the Corps. “These are kids that are not of voting age, and they are willing to engage in our democracy because they want to know what’s going on in the world,” said Kahn. “They want to know where we are as a society, what laws are being proposed, how the laws are passed, and who is supporting those laws. We’re seeing so many young people get engaged in a way that we have not seen before.”

State Senate candidate Pat Strong, seen with Liam Kahn and Jazmin Kay.

Jazmin Kay, who works with Kahn in Hudson Valley Votes, is currently a political science student at George Washington University who, like Kahn, hails from Woodstock. The youngest intern (at 18) at the White House during the Obama administration, Kay also interned for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and served as the national press secretary for College Democrats of America. With midterm elections possibly deciding what party has control of Congress, both Kay and Kahn wanted to focus their attention on their local 19th New York Congressional District race.

“My father passed away last year and he was very much involved in politics for a long time,” said Kahn. “I’d lived in D.C. under Obama and Trump, and what my father had said to me was so much clearer to me after the election of Donald Trump: ‘If you really want to know what’s going on in the world, get on the streets and talk to the average Joe.’ I decided that if I wanted to create real change, and I mean real change, I would have to get back to my community, back to my roots, to fight for the people and vision that I believe in. I didn’t think I could do that as effectively in D.C. — my father’s words rang through my head.”

The two made a connection over their shared passion for politics, and wanted to inspire people to vote where they grew up. “We had our first meeting in August, and [the Youth Voter Corps] came out of this common idea that young people are such a decisive factor in the local elections here. There has not been a better time to make sure that the young people of the Hudson Valley get involved,” said Kay.

At their weekly meetings at the Rock Academy in Saugerties, Kay and Kahn have seen a group of more than 30 students gather to become student leaders in the Voter Corps. These students have met with local candidates and legislative officials who deliver talks on the importance of participating in political discourse and civic education.

“We had Juan [Figueroa] speak to them on Sept. 9, four days before the primary,” said Kay. “Many of our students posted selfies, wrote on social media and told their friends about their personal experience getting to know Juan and why voting for him as our democratic nominee for sheriff is important for young people. He won with 82 percent of the vote and Ulster had the highest voter turnout it’s seen in years, and I definitely think the Youth Voters impacted that.”

In addition to organizing and promoting large-scale events, such as an upcoming concert in Kingston on Oct. 20, and driving smaller events like sign painting, postcard mailing, and candidate canvassing, the members of the Youth Voter Corps also serve as roaming ambassadors, returning to their home schools to actively engage their fellow students in more of the same. “The activities of the Youth Voter Corps are basically twofold. The first element is trying to bring voter registration to schools and our everyday conversations. You’re so much more likely to get involved if your classmate is reaching out to you,” said Kay. “The second is communication — about voting deadlines and where and when you need to vote. There are even social media ambassadors!”

As we draw closer to the midterm elections on Nov. 6, the impact of these many projects will remain to be seen. But for Kay and Kahn, the value has already shown in the way that these young advocates have embraced their own agency in the democratic process. “We are a youth activist group turning our voices into action. We meet with special guests and candidates [and] they represent all the things we care about. So, we try our best to help get them into office by sending letters, knocking on doors, making phone calls and advertising,” said one of the corps’ youth captains, Saugerties High School student Kaia Dedek. “To me this has been a great experience. It makes me feel like I can make a difference in our community. I always feel I inspired and heard after every meeting I’ve been to. This is a very proactive and involved group that I’m in and I’m very proud to say that I’m a part of it.”

The Youth Voter Corps and the Hudson Valley Votes initiative will culminate in a name-recognition-heavy concert at UPAC on Oct. 20. The event will be headlined by singer Natalie Merchant; also in the lineup is actor and Rhinebeck candy store co-owner Paul Rudd of Ant-Man, Anchorman and Forgetting Sarah Marshall fame, actor Mary Stuart Masterson, who has a film studio operation in Kingston and Aaron Dessner of alternative rock act The National, among others. Teen members of The Rock Academy will also be on hand. For more information, visit www.hudsonvalleyvotes.com.