#IfICouldVote: Looking to the next wave of youth voters

November 7, 2016 /

Above: Tsim Nuj Lor (Left) and Cheng Vang pose for pictures.

By Hannah Esqueda

Photos by Hannah Esqueda


Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in We’Ced’s #IfICouldVote series, which aims to share the powerful voices of young people who can not vote, with an end goal of motivating others to cast their ballots on November 8th.


Merced, Calif.–Historically underrepresented at the polls, young adults age 18-24 are a tempting but enigmatic demographic for many. Pundits, analysts and political campaigns pore over the data each election year, searching for patterns or spikes in youth voter turnout.

Part of the problem is indifference, said 16-year-old Cheng Vang, a student at Buhach Colony High School in Atwater. While this election cycle has been full of turmoil and drama, many of his friends and classmates don’t regularly follow politics and therefore don’t feel a personal connection to any of the issues on the ballot.

If the voting age were lowered to 16, however, Vang said youth would be more likely to pay attention and start forming consistent voting habits.

“I think it’d be cool to [lower the voting age],” he said. “Because when you’re 16 you’re in high school and you’re just starting to learn about politics and about U.S. history and stuff like that. [School] teaches you a lot about the U.S. government, so I think 16 would be a great age to get youth involved.”

While turnout may initially be low, allowing youth to be involved from an earlier age would show teens that adults care about their voice, said Tsim Nuj Lor.

A 16-year-old junior at El Capitan High School in Merced, Lor currently serves on the city’s Youth Council. The position allows his voice to be heard on some local issues, but he agrees that opening voting to more youth could help cultivate a stronger interest in the election process.

“From my perspective, it would be good,” Lor said. “I do think that there’s a lot [of youth] who are between 16-18 who might be ignorant of the issues or it’s just not a big deal for them, but for the percentage of youth who are interested, I think it would be good to lower the voting age.”

A handful of cities nationwide have lowered the voting age for local matters, encouraging those 16 and older to exercise their political voice on issues close to home. This November, San Francisco could become the latest such city as voters will have a chance to approve a measure calling for a lower voting age on all local ballots.

Advocates for the change suggest that lowering the age limit would lead to increased youth voter turnout at local elections. Traditionally, youth voters 18-24 have only turned out en masse for national elections, with 41 percent showing up in the 2012 presidential election year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Overall, the age group represents nearly 20 percent of the electorate, making them a powerful group once motivated.

For Lor, the motivation is personal. His mother, Lee Lor, is currently running for Merced County Supervisor in District 2, and if elected, she would be the first Hmong woman to hold the seat.

While he’ll be unable to vote directly for her this year, Lor said he has been actively involved with his mom’s campaign, spending nights and weekends canvassing and spreading her election message to friends and acquaintances.

“I don’t really find it disappointing [that I can’t vote for her] because I feel that she has a lot of support and there’s going to be a lot of people voting for her,” he said. “So I feel as though I have a voice in it too and those people will be speaking for me when they vote.”

Still, if given the power to vote Lor said he would definitely use the opportunity to vote for his mom and on issues he feels knowledgeable about.

Vang feels similarly, and said despite all the negative rhetoric surrounding this year’s presidential election, he still knows who he would vote for if he had the chance.

“If I could vote, I would probably re-choose Obama, but since he’s not one of the two main candidates, I have to try and choose the best one,” he said. “I would choose Hillary [Clinton] because Trump talks about a lot of stuff and says racist stuff. He talks about deporting Mexicans and I have a lot of friends who are Mexican and I don’t like how he talks about them.”

While Vang and Lor recognize that many of their peers may lack enthusiasm for a particular political candidate this year, they still understand the consequences of remaining silent.

“Even though there’s never one person you’re totally agreeing with I think you have to choose sides because if you don’t, you might get stuck with the other,” Vang said. “You always need to choose who’s best for you and your family and friends.”

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