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Gun-Reform Activists Spur Voter Registration At High Schools

May 30, 2018
Originally published on May 30, 2018 7:30 am

Students at more than 1,000 schools across the country are registering young voters in lunchrooms, hallways and even at upcoming graduation ceremonies in a week of activism aimed at electing lawmakers who support gun reforms in response to school shootings in Florida and Texas.

David Hogg, a senior at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, is spearheading the national effort along with the New York-based organization HeadCount. Hogg and organization officials say students at more than 1,000 schools in 46 states are participating, with most starting their drives Tuesday. Their goal is to have 90 percent of the nation's high schools host drives before the current senior class graduates in hopes of boosting young-voter turnout, which is traditionally low, especially during midterm elections.

HeadCount, a national organization that has registered nearly half a million voters since 2004, mostly at concerts and music festivals, also hosted voter tables at the March For Our Lives gun-reform rally organized by Hogg and other Parkland students in Washington, D.C., that drew hundreds of thousands of young people in March. Voter-registration drives were the logical next step after months of rallies and schools walkouts, the activists said.

Hogg says all the rhetoric on gun reform is worthless unless voters oust lawmakers who are beholden to the National Rifle Association. The students want tighter regulations on guns, including universal background checks and training for people who own AR-15s and similar semi-automatic rifles.

"We need to vote people out of office that are perpetuating issues affecting young people like gun violence. ... The youth don't vote lawmakers into office and as a result they don't work for them," he said.

Student organizers are trying to reach teens in spots they frequent, including coffee shops and at school assemblies, where they say it takes less than two minutes to register them. There was little activity at the voting booth at Douglas High School on Tuesday because the majority of eligible students have already registered, Hogg said. The students have held three other voter drives in the months after the Valentine's Day shooting that claimed 17 lives.

On Tuesday, Douglas High Principal Ty Thompson tweeted a photo with a big, gold trophy congratulating them for registering more students than any other school in Broward County.

Roughly 43 percent of 18-year-olds in the United States were registered to vote in 2016, but only 34 percent voted in that year's presidential election, HeadCount representatives say, citing statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Turnout for congressional and local elections is even lower.

"There's an inequality in the education system when some schools have very organized voter-registration efforts and others have nothing," said HeadCount executive director Andy Bernstein. "But this is one of those rare societal problems that can be fixed pretty easily. If some schools already do a great job helping students register, there's no reason all schools can't do the same."

Nurah Abdulhaqq, a 14-year-old at Chapel Hill High School in Douglasville, Georgia, has been an advocate for gun reform since 2016, when her cousin was gunned down in her small town. The teen hosted a town hall with lawmakers in April to discuss the issue, saying she broke down after watching the Parkland shooting on the news.

"It was kind of shocking to me, and the fact that this has happened time and time again in this country and nothing's changed. There's been no stronger gun-control laws passed," she said.

Nurah planned to hold a voter-registration drive in her school's cafeteria on May 17, but school administrators said it was too close to the end of the year. She helped about 33 young people register in her town square, more than half of whom were under the age of 25.

"We know the only way to get real change is to vote and check a ballot box and to get the right people in. ... It's just time to vote these people out that don't really care if we're getting killed in school or not."

Grace Goldstein, a 16-year-old sophomore at Stuyvesant High School in New York City, saw Hogg's tweet about hosting the drives and immediately responded. She said she felt an instant connection with the Parkland teens: She was locked down inside her school on Halloween of 2017 when a terrorist drove a pickup truck down a crowded bike path along the Hudson River in Manhattan, killing eight people and injuring 11 before being shot by police.

Goldstein formed the activist group Stuyvesant Says Enough, which has organized walkouts and rallies that have for the most part gotten a strong response from students. Still, she worries "that student apathy is a very, very dangerous thing" and something she's already observing as school shootings fade from news headlines.

"Some of my best friends were saying (of the rallies), 'You know it's not going to do anything.' ... They didn't think it would matter or make a difference."

Goldstein says she views the walkouts and rallies "as kind of a warning almost," but that "voting is where we can make a tangible difference."

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