Election 2012: Rebecca Reynolds, Chicago Votes Aim to Get Young Voters Involved

Rebecca Reynolds of Chicago Votes

Rebecca Reynolds, director of programming at Chicago Votes,
discusses issues facing young voters. (Photo by Julian Zeng)

By Jeremy Mikula and Julian Zeng
The Red Line Project

Posted: Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012

Young people “don’t care” anymore, if the cynics are to be believed. But new start-up group Chicago Votes seeks to prove this isn’t the case.

The philosophy of Chicago Votes, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Logan Square and Roseland/Woodlawn, is that the issue of young voter apathy is not a result of laziness or lack of care. It’s one of a lack of education.

Founded in February 2012, the group’s key activity is the registration and education of people of younger generations. Additionally, Chicago Votes seeks to engage young voters in events that are “democracy-driven,” yet still entertaining. One such event is “Trick or Vote,” which includes going door-to-door and leaving reminders of the Nov. 6 election, or debate watch parties called “Give a Sh*t Happy Hour.”

In this Q&A, Chicago Votes Director of Programming Rebecca Reynolds details the group’s origin, issues facing young voters, and the registration process and how it affects young people.

Q. Can you take us through the origins of Chicago Votes?

A: Chicago Votes came from an idea of a lot of different people who doing really similar work back in 2010-2011. After finding out [Mayor Richard M.] Daley wasn’t going to seek re-election, [people] realized that there was this first time in their lifetime that there was going to be a new mayor and realized that’s a huge and exciting decision for us to make. A bunch of organizations that were started at that time realized they were suddenly doing similar types of work. That group came to create an organization city-wide that does “get out the vote” efforts and voter education efforts among our peers to make our democracy more robust and participatory.

It also came out of the fact that we had realized that in our recent elections, and among registered voters, we were seeing some alarmingly low participation rates. So, for example, in the last primary election, only about 24 percent of registered voters voted, and that’s with registration at a low as well. This organization is working to address that very issue of participation.

Q. What steps are you taking to address low participation and low registration?

A: There are a lot of things. One, it’s an attitude about democracy, and I think folks are really deeply cynical, so we hold events around democracy and around participating that’s really democracy-positive – and non-partisan. We’re really committed to the idea that when we talk about elections we actually just simply emphasize the importance of participating, not necessarily who you’re going to vote for. We in fact believe that people will make the right decisions for themselves and we support that.

Q. You mentioned that people are cynical. How do you get young people to vote when a lot of people who graduate college recently are not able to get a job in their degree field. How do you combat that sort of voter apathy among the young?

A: You know, I don’t like to characterize it as voter apathy. I think a lot of the time, from what we understand about the electoral process, we make a calculated decision about whether we’re going to vote. Often, folks are thinking, ‘It’s Illinois, it’s a presidential election year, but it’s not going to matter that I vote,’ and they’re making what would be considered a rational decision about not participating.

But, you have to go out there and let them know there are actually really important things going on on your ballot, they’re just down your ballot, like the ballot initiatives [i.e., state pension referendum, Chicago electricity rates]. All really vital and critical things that directly impact our lives, but that information isn’t readily available because it’s not disseminated in a way that gets to their computer screens and in their hands.

Q. Have you gone out and tried to register people? You have things like ‘Trick or Vote,’ but it will be too late to register by that point.

A: What we decided this year was we were going to participate in the first-ever National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 25. We organized for a couple weeks in advance to have tons of people across the city registering voters and we did that by partnering up with organizations like the Young Leaders Society and on different college campuses. We also organized just on the ground in the areas where folks are living.

Q. Do you target certain neighborhoods or demographics more than others? For example, neighborhoods like Pilsen and Back of the Yards have traditionally low registration and turnout?

A: No. Though we organize among our peers in a lot of ways, the people we’re reaching out to are diverse and members of all of our communities. Even our two locals that we’ve started – in Logan Square and in Roseland/Woodlawn – if you were to break them down socioeconomically but also racially and culturally, you would actually have a really diverse swatch of Chicago. It’s really important to us that we continue to maintain the importance of diversity, reaching across social and class lines.

Q. What kind of funding do you have?

A: We’re new, and so we’re just now developing our funding and resources. The idea here is that our democracy is only going to get better and more robust and more participatory if we [take donations]. It’s not going to happen on its own for sure and it’s certainly not going to happen because somebody was just writing something. We believe in hands-on democracy and we also believe that part of being hands-on is actually creating the organization that you want to help develop that. A lot of our volunteers, for example, are small monthly donors and it’s because we all believe in this concept and this idea, and we realize that we need to invest in our future and this is a vehicle for doing that.

Q. Can you give an example of voter education you’ve done?

A: One of the things we did at our last event was educate folks on the new aldermen in the wards, so we just had a remap and a lot of people don’t know who represents them anymore. And so at our kickoff event, we had a quick guide to the remap and showing folks exactly where they were. We then gave them a corresponding flier with information about their local electives.

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